The drive to convince Arizona State University to build a four-year college campus in Payson has picked up momentum, with support from ASU officials, meetings with potential investors and a planned joint session with the Payson council and ASU negotiators.
Right now, Payson has the lead in winning the competition to build the first of the proposed new, smaller, cheaper four-year colleges, say ASU officials.
ASU hopes to open a new branch campus as early as 2011 — perhaps in Payson, said Senior Vice President and University Planner Richard Stanley.
“It’s not ‘pie in the sky’ in that we’re working very diligently to get this done, but we’re really just starting the detailed conversations with (Payson) Mayor (Kenny) Evans,” said Stanley.
Stanley said the university has had talks with seven other Arizona cities, but that the negotiations with Payson are the “furthest along.”
“The biggest challenge is financial,” he said, given the state budget crisis that has forced deep budget cuts on ASU.
However, he noted that Mayor Evans has rounded up pledges of at least $70 million and laid the groundwork for obtaining a 300-acre site for the campus from the U.S. Forest Service.
“That’s a very nice number,” said Stanley. “We would have no trouble building a very adequate campus well within that number.” Stanley said initially the campus would probably house about 1,500 students working on a limited number of undergraduate degrees, with a focus on rural health care and sustainability.
The Payson Town Council will meet jointly with ASU officials on Nov. 18 and then hold an executive session the next day to discuss the negotiations.
This week Evans met with a group of potential investors, eager to build a campus envisioned as a showpiece for “sustainable” design and technology.
“It was really one of the most positive meetings I’ve had” on the prospects for the campus, said Evans. “They are very enamored with the site” on forested land just off Highway 260 near the Payson Ranger Station.
He said the investors were attending a sustainability conference in Phoenix when they heard about the preliminary plans to build a campus nestled in the pines that would showcase sustainable design and energy efficiency. The investors called Evans to make an appointment.
Stanley said ASU hopes to build a network of small, focused campuses both in Maricopa County and in rural areas like Payson. Those campuses would operate at a much lower per-student cost, partly by taking advantage of cheaper land and facilities and partly by focusing on undergraduate degrees that did not require the expensive infrastructure.
Stanley said the plan calls for limiting tuition to the amount of a federal Pell Grant. Currently, that’s about $5,500 —about $1,000 less than the tuition at ASU. That gap would likely grow by the time the first of those smaller campuses could open, given the rapid increases in ASU’s base tuition spurred by the current state budget crisis.
Evans said he hopes to explore public private partnerships to build facilities at a much lower cost than ASU could build in the traditional way. That could include the classrooms and administrative space, dormitories and even hotels and commercial developments — since the campus would need to use only about half of the available land for school buildings.
Evans said he has also already met with state lawmakers representing the region to talk about introducing legislation in January that would make it much easier for ASU to contract with Gila Community College’s Payson campus to share facilities and programs.
“We’re going to make them bigger, better, stronger, faster,” said Evans.
Currently, Gila Community College actually operates under the umbrella of Eastern Arizona College in Safford, which means it gets about half as much money per student as all the other community colleges in the state.
Evans said an eventual agreement with ASU could involve a close partnership with Gila Community College.
“It’s too early to have a specific model (for the relationship with Gila Community College),” said Stanley, “but we are working diligently with community colleges right now. The idea is for students to identify the program they’d like to get a bachelor’s degree in, and then identify a very specific set of courses at the community college that will lead them to upper division status. That will be one of the things we’ll be looking to work with Gila on, and there are a number of relationships that could exist beyond that.”
Stanley said the biggest single barrier to building a campus in Payson remains financial, although the pledges Evans has collected could cover the cost of getting the campus started.
Evans said he will push for a master plan that has a chance to develop the proposed college to its potential — which he says could cost as much as $500 million.
“I don’t want to start, I want to finish — to complete this campus in a way that will truly be the kind of campus that we can all be proud of. And I want to make sure the road map leads to that finished product. If we try to build this campus the way ASU has built them in the past, we’ll have the exact same thing ASU has had in the past. We can’t build it their way with a different outcome,” said Evans.
Stanley credited Evans’ diligent, personal negotiations and his ability to round up financial commitments from donors and investors for moving Payson to the head of the pack in the effort to land a college campus.
The campus will likely feature a dedicated, on-site faculty, a mix of Internet and video classes broadcast from the main campus in Tempe and carefully focused programs that would take advantage of Payson’s location — all at a per-student cost much lower than is possible on ASU’s main campus.
“I don’t want to talk about a lot of specifics about Payson,” said Stanley. “We need to put that off until we get some things on the table. But I think we will be putting together a program that has a compelling story to tell.”
By March, said Stanley, “I think we’ll have a very good sense. We mutually set that date as one that gives us enough time to know whether we’re both seeing what we want there to make it work.”