Hope Is College Will Draw Top Students

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Lots of Rim Country residents mostly hope that a proposed ASU campus in Payson will give local kids more options — including a chance to earn a low-cost college degree without leaving home.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans predicts the campus will instead become a competitive, cutting-edge institution, which Rim Country students will have to work hard to get into.

Those contrasting views of the proposed campus came to light during a recent two-hour session before the Citizen’s Awareness Committee, one of the most extensive public airings of the prospects for the proposed 1,000- to 6,000-student campus.

“This will be a world-class university,” said Evans.

The signing of a memorandum of understanding between ASU and Payson has triggered a much more open discussion of the details of the plan. For instance, Evans also offered a description of key elements of the plan at a luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club. At that meeting, he said the town is in discussion with a major hotel to build a 400-room hotel with a 1,000-seat convention center. He said four other hotel operators have also touched base with the town to begin discussions on perhaps building more hotels. Currently, Payson has about 700 hotel rooms. Moreover, he said the plans for the ASU campus include a 1,500-seat performing arts and presentation center, which would provide a setting for a multitude of university and community events.

However, at the same time, town officials have begun talking more openly about the details of the plans developed during the past two years, they’ve been casting a nervous eye over their shoulders at the newly elected state Legislature.

University advocates fear the Legislature will make deep cuts in university funding in an effort to cope with a budget deficit that has gaped open to $1.3 billion in the current fiscal year.

The funding for universities represents one of the few discretionary pots of money the Legislature can cut. Since the recession began in 2007, the Legislature has cut support for the three state universities by $230 million, or 18 percent.

That reduction comes in the face of a 12 percent increase in enrollment. Advocates fear the Legislature will cap or reduce university enrollment or reduce funding to the point that ASU will close existing satellite campuses. That could blight the prospects for opening a new campus, even if it costs 50 percent less to educate a student there.

The plan for the Payson campus assumes tuition levels about 50 percent less than at ASU’s Tempe campus. Evans has said the campus would still pencil out even with a much lower state subsidy for each student, but probably not if the state eliminates all support for the universities.

Still, Payson has pushed on with the planning — especially the effort to clear the hurdles to purchase the 300-acre site from the Forest Service.

The emerging details of the plan for the “millennium” campus suggest that it could well prove so popular at its lower tuition rate that it can cater to top-tier students.

Evans said the forested campus with dorms and classrooms nestled among 200-year-old pines and beautiful rock formations will feature an integrated alternative energy design — from the geothermal shafts to heat and cool the buildings to the solar panels that will ultimately generate more electricity than the campus uses.

The campus will include digital classrooms with real-time lectures from anywhere in the world and a wireless system that allows students to connect from anywhere on campus — or in town for that matter.

Evans predicted the campus will develop programs on rural health care and sustainable technology and design that will make it a focal point of scholarship and expertise in those areas.

Moreover, the campus will theoretically have tuition rates perhaps half the rate at other ASU campuses. As a result, he predicted the campus could easily grow to its 6,000-student limit.

“If we can do it for 50 percent less, then will all 71,000 students (at ASU’s three Valley campuses) troop up the hill to this campus? That’s why we have an absolute ceiling of 6,000. Historically, we’ve limited enrollment (in the universities) by how much can daddy pay. But we will need to look at grades and performance and the aptitude and willingness to learn.”

“If you attract the best and the brightest,” said John Wakelin, “they’ll be the ones who get in,” instead of mostly local students.

One other listener added, “I’m not sure that rural northern Arizona has the best and the brightest.”

“It will be a world university,” said Evans. “We’re going to try to get a balance (of students) by raising the bar (for local students),” he said.

“I thought it was going to be a way for people to stay in Payson and get a degree — that was the whole point,” said another listener. “So you’re saying that’s not what it’s going to be?”

Evans said the drive behind the “millennium” campus has always overlapped with the separate effort to improve the educational level and opportunities for northern Gila County.

He said several years ago an assessment showed a scary need to increase the college attendance rate among young people in Gila County. Not only does a smaller share of Rim Country students go to college than the state average, but the college dropout rate among those who do attend is much higher than the state average.

“That needs assessment found that our local community college wasn’t doing what it needed to do, that we had a huge gap in the number of young people that want a four-year degree,” said Evans. “This regional crisis reflected a national crisis in rural areas: We’ve unplugged rural areas.”

The current recession has underscored the danger of that trend. Workers with a high school degree and less have suffered a disastrous rise in long-term unemployment, with no signs of a return of those low-skilled jobs. By contrast, the unemployment rate among people with a college degree has remained at around 4 percent.

The key to creating a world-class university on a budget will depend in part on the economic support from a conference hotel, research industrial park and other spin-off businesses and uses on the roughly 150 acres not needed for classrooms and university buildings, Evans said.

For instance, the town has nearly reached agreement with a 400-room conference hotel. That agreement would include a guarantee of $1 million annually in lease payments that would help offset university costs to keep tuition at no more than the National Pell Grant level — which now stands at about half of the tuition at ASU’s Tempe Campus.

“We have a vision of how education is going to have to evolve,” said Evans, in an era when students have access to an overwhelming amount of information and have a bewilderment of ways to communicate.

“We have an entire generation who learns differently than we did — and we have not kept up with that change. They have more access to information both good and bad —than any generation in the history of the world.”

He suggested the campus will have to specialize in a few areas, including rural health care. Currently, rural areas generally have far fewer doctors per capita than big urban areas, especially specialists. But dramatic changes in medical technology now make it possible for a primary care doctor, or a midwife, or a physician’s assistant in Payson to use a real-time video and data link with a specialist in Phoenix or New York or London to examine patients and make recommendations.

“So already, we’re starting to see an influx of doctors into town — and the first thing they ask is ‘when is ASU coming?’ If we’re going to succeed, we need to look at the needs of the next generation of health care providers — not just doctors, not just nurses — but health care providers. So what do you call the guy at the computer on that conference call? And what do you call the guy running the computer that is going to run the saw to split your chest open for heart surgery? What do you call the technician that monitors the signals from the hospital wrist band that sends all your data to the control center in Kansas? We’ll be teaching world-class health care — which means we won’t just be receiving classes, but we’ll be an outflow campus.”

The campus has a similar opportunity to do cutting edge scholarships on issues like sustainability, since the design will include all the latest elements of solar energy, geothermal and building design.

“When we talk about sustainability, we’re not talking about forest health,” which programs at NAU and ASU already address.

“We’re talking about trying to live in an environmentally responsible way and pay for it through found commerce. We can’t have environmental responsibility that we force down people’s throats — we have to incentivize it.”

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