Gila Community College remains one vital piece in the jigsaw puzzle of a Payson university campus.
Unfortunately, for the moment the piece remains flat on the table — face down. Faced with the need to accommodate a projected 50 percent increase in the demand for college degrees, the universities are seeking deeper connections with the booming community colleges.
Many other states have a much more layered higher education system, including universities, colleges, community colleges and private universities.
Arizona lacks both a wealth of private universities and a state college system. The state doesn’t have the money to build a state college system from scratch.
One approach would build up the role of community colleges, including letting them offer four-year degrees.
That’s the approach favored by backers of Eastern Arizona College in Safford, which has pushed repeatedly for authority from the state Legislature to begin offering a limited selection of four-year degrees to augment the two-year community college degrees they now offer.
Legislation to let EAC offer four-year degrees has repeatedly died in the Legislature — partly as a result of opposition from the universities.
Northern Arizona University and Yavapai Community College in Prescott are experimenting with a different approach — offering a growing number of joint programs. In that case, faculty members from NAU sometimes teach classes at the community college and students can take classes to count toward their university majors.
“So in that case, they’re sharing the same building, designing simultaneous admissions, so that it’s as seamless as possible,” said Arizona Board of Regents Chairman Fred Duval.
The Payson campus represents a different approach, with a new university campus built with private funds — donations and loans to a community facilities district that would buy the land, build the campus, and then lease it to ASU.
The Payson approach might benefit from an intimate link to Gila Community College, which lies just across the highway from the proposed campus site.
GCC is a provisional community college, which means that it must contract with EAC and pay a 25 percent overhead charge. Advocates for the ASU campus hope that GCC could instead contract with ASU to provide its credential — at least for an interim period until the Legislature approves its bid to escape its “provisional” status. However, the Legislature would also have to change the law to allow universities and community colleges to enter into such contracts.
GCC’s efforts to change its status could blend perfectly with the plan to build an ASU campus. ASU has already developed close relationships with community colleges in the Valley to offer so-called “2 plus 2” programs. Such programs coordinate curriculums between an ASU campus and a nearby community college campus to allow students to take as many classes as possible at community college rates and to ensure all those units transfer smoothly to their university degree. As a result, students earn a B.A. in four years, with the first two years spent at the community college.
Duval said the link between GCC and a Payson ASU campus could prove vital.
“It’s very important,” he said. “What our newly announced strategic initiative envisions is a much more collaborative relationship with community colleges across the board. In some cases that will work — in some cases it won’t. But we’re too early in the process (in Payson) to know which is which.”