Leaders Push Plan For College Campus

University branch proposal spurs heavy maneuvering

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The potential for a four-year college in Payson, which local leaders have been pushing for years, ballooned recently when Arizona State University’s president reportedly pushed for small, regional campuses around the state.

The idea remains only a possibility for now, and local advocates are talking carefully lest the delicate political balance falls against Payson.

Ultimately, the potential exists for a 3,000-student, four-year satellite campus of a state-run university, advocates say. Three sites have been identified as “acceptable” in Payson, said Mayor Kenny Evans.

He declined to specify which sites or which university could serve Rim Country.

Gila Community College board member Larry Stephenson said a four-year campus could complement existing programs.

“This is definitely thinking outside of the box,” said Stephenson.

The growing expense of maintaining administration for huge, city-sized campuses is becoming too large for the state to bear, and smaller campuses could potentially reduce the cost to students as well, Evans said. Simultaneously, the boost would offer more education and economic stimulus to Payson while complementing the existing Gila Community College.

ASU President Michael Crow proposed at a recent Arizona Board of Regents meeting that his college build several small, four-year universities around the state, with the ASU name, The Arizona Republic reported.

The idea departs from traditional ideas of education, Evans said, adding that model is broken. Administrative costs for the collegiate metropolises outpace the schools’ abilities to provide affordable education. Also, urban construction costs more than in rural areas. The result: high tuitions for both students and the state.

Smaller campuses would make college more affordable and accessible, Evans said. The college could work in tandem with Gila Community College, and not against it, he added.

Stephenson agreed. “The concept is intriguing and it would have to be well thought out by both the community college, GCC, and the four-year school — ASU or whoever it may be,” he said.

Both Stephenson and Evans, along with the others working to bring a college to Payson, said they were speaking of the proposal as residents, and not in their official capacities.

The proposal is extraordinarily delicate. “There are huge political, regulatory and institutional challenges that still need to be addressed,” Evans said. “Many of these negotiations are very sensitive, they’re multi-faceted and they will require a great deal of statesmanship.”

Evans said leaders at every level are discussing the project — educators, politicians and other industry leaders — but none of them are working in an official capacity.

Local leaders have worked “in earnest” since 2002 to expand the northern part of the county’s higher education possibilities.

The consensus among those local leaders is that a four-year college is needed to complement GCC. Two- and four-year institutions serve different needs, and Stephenson advocated for Payson’s potential campus to have focus.

The possible Rim Country college should, “take a handful of things and do them well, rather than be all things to all people,” he said. A program that truly excels could not only draw students from around the state, but it could also garner nationwide acclaim.

“If it’s just another French literature program, it won’t get too many people excited,” Stephenson said.

GCC owns roughly 50 acres, 40 of which now sits unused. The state helped buy the land and stipulated that its sole use would be education. Stephenson didn’t know if that original stipulation changed. The board has been asked to share the land before, Stephenson said, although he didn’t say explicitly if the college would be willing to share with a possible university.

“The college campus is, given the lack of land in Payson, a tremendous resource if done right,” Stephenson said.

Evans said a confluence of factors — the recent acquisition of water rights and a road from the Valley to Payson that can handle high traffic — has made this moment ripe.

“Call it fate, call it whatever you want to call it,” Evans said.

However, he was quick to add, “it may not be in the future. We know it hasn’t been in the past.”

Money could simultaneously postpone and push the idea. The state’s ability to finance new buildings is unknown. However, Evans said a financial push exists to roll out these miniature universities to cut state costs. Educating a student at one of the regional colleges could cost half as much as at an existing university, according to Evans.

It is possible for a campus, though not necessarily in Payson, to open by fall 2009. Evans said that would likely be a rudimentary campus, perhaps classes in existing buildings.

“I see things moving more slowly than that, but I’m a farmer, not a builder,” he said.

A school could attract environmentally-friendly, high paying businesses, said Evans.

Payson’s high number of senior citizens could also contribute to the lure, he added.

The college could offer the “best of both worlds” — that of a college town along with Payson’s existing rural, relaxed ambience.

Talks are continuing and no proposal is yet set to appear on an agenda of the Arizona Board of Regents.

So how likely is it? “If this core group of people sticks together and continues to promote the idea, it’s a very likely possibility,” Evans said. “If we want to sit down and argue, you drop it down from probably to possible to long shot and I really think that’s up to Payson.”

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