Low-Cost College Plans Advance While Payson Lingers

GCC students can soon get four-year degree here as a result of deal with ASU

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Great idea.

Bad timing.

That’s one conclusion that emerges from a rash of recent moves by Arizona State University to offer quick, unconventional low-cost college degrees — although plans to build a high-tech, four-year campus in Payson remain subject to the bureaucratic equivalent of the drip, drip, drip of the Chinese water torture.

As a result, local students might end up earning a bachelor’s degree by taking classes at Gila Community College long before Payson can complete a proposed, 6,000-student campus here.

Recently, ASU announced a new partnership with Eastern Arizona College that will enable students to earn a bachelor’s degree entirely on EAC’s campus in Thatcher or on Payson’s Gila Community College campus, which EAC administers.

In addition, ASU has concluded a deal with Lake Havasu City to build a 700-student campus in a previously closed school campus. The program hopes to start with about 130 students in 2012.

ASU Vice President Richard Stanley, the point man for negotiations concerning the Payson campus, said, “We are continuing to work on finding a way to make the campuses’ financial relationship with the SLE work for both sides. I have nothing definitive to report and in the absence of anything definitive, I am not going to speculate on outcomes and timetables.”

However, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the plan to build the first, 1,000-student phase of an ASU campus here opening in 2013 or 2014 remains on track.

He expects ASU in December to sign a binding agreement to build the campus and in the spring to start building dorms and classrooms on a 67-acre tract of private land north of the highway, which may — or may not — include an additional nine-acre parcel owned by Gila County in trust for GCC.

The flurry of new agreements by ASU and other state universities represent a solution to the same need to double the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in coming decades that lay behind the sales pitch for Payson’s $400 million campus, which would create a wireless Internet, energy self-sufficient residential undergraduate campus, supported by spin-off businesses like a research industrial park and a 500-room convention hotel.

ASU has grown to more than 70,000 students at four Valley campuses, but has no money to build new facilities to accommodate a projected doubling in the number of undergraduate degrees the state’s residents will need by 2020.

Moreover, an inexorably 10 percent annual rise in tuition to about $9,700 annually has begun to price many students out of a university education.

As a result, all three of the state’s university have been looking for ways to expand the number of undergraduate degrees they offer while lowering the cost of those degrees, all without using state funds.

Payson has offered to raise private loans and donations to build a 6,000-student campus and charge students a much lower tuition rate, using revenue from dorms, the research park and the conference hotel to help keep ASU’s costs low.

Backers estimate that tuition would come in at $5,000 to $6,000 per year, compared to more than $9,700 at ASU’s Tempe campus. Payson and Star Valley joined forces to set up the Rim Country Educational Alliance SLE, which can buy land, build facilities and sign leases.

So far, ASU has not signed a binding commitment to lease the facilities fronting on the highway and Tyler Parkway once the Alliance builds the campus to ASU’s specifications. The plans feature classrooms, dorms and administrative buildings nestled on forested land on both sides of the highway adjacent to GCC on the north and next to the current Payson Ranger Station on the south.

Payson has labored for more than three years to strike a deal with ASU.

However, several other projects aimed at providing a flow of low-cost undergraduate degrees without any upfront investment from the state have moved forward in recent weeks.

The new partnership between ASU and EAC will produce the most immediate local benefits, especially for local students who can’t afford to enroll at one of the three state universities. Students living at home and taking classes for their bachelor’s degree at GCC could finish up at a fraction of the cost of attending ASU and paying for dorms and meal service.

The agreement between EAC and ASU will provide lower-cost options for students seeking degrees in nursing, business, elementary education, operations management and other fields. EAC and GCC draw students from Gila, Graham and Greenlee counties.

The ASU Board of Regents has already approved a full-time tuition rate of about $5,500 per semester, roughly the same as backers of the Payson campus had considered. However, administrators on both sides are still working out the details of the class offerings and the degrees included.

Students could complete degrees by taking classes based on the community college campus, while completing their general education courses through the community college. As a result, students could start earning degrees as soon as 2012.

ASU Vice Provost Maria Hess said “EAC provides high quality college programs in beautiful facilities, with wonderful faculty. ASU will be working closely with their EAC colleagues to provide the remaining portion of the bachelor’s degree so that students end up with a PAC-12 university degree, which is highly marketable. And by sharing resources, we can offer the degree at a lower cost so we anticipate this new model will be appreciated by parents and community leaders.”

The partnership with ASU comes after years of futile efforts by EAC to win the permission of the state Legislature to offer four-year degrees directly.

Gov. Jan Brewer issued a statement on the partnership that said “Arizona needs more adults with four-year college degrees in order to satisfy the fastest-growing career fields, develop a stronger state economy and improve our quality of life. I am thrilled to see university and community college partnerships of this kind increasing in the rural sections of the state.”

Meanwhile, ASU’s partnership with Lake Havasu City recently got approval to spend about $2 million to convert a shuttered school site into a campus offering degrees in a range of fields, including things like psychology, life sciences, communications, operations management and nursing.

Administrators hope to enroll 130 students by the fall of 2012 and a total of about 700 students by 2017.

ASU reported to the Regents that it will “work diligently to exceed those numbers.”

Lake Havasu City has about 52,000 residents, more than three times as many as Payson.

Backers there raised $1 million through a private foundation and then sealed the deal with ASU with an additional $1 million donation from a local couple. The Lake Havasu Unified School District has agreed to provide for free a closed middle school to host the campus.

Meanwhile, the University of Arizona has even gotten into the act, using a $6 million federal grant to join forces with Arizona Western College in Yuma to enable students to get an undergraduate engineering degree through classes at the local community college.

Students would take a combination of community college and university classes in Yuma for their first three years, then finish their engineering degree on the UA campus in Tucson.

The program will focus on things like renewable energy systems and other sustainability engineering training.

As it happens, backers of the Payson campus hoped to make green energy a major feature of the energy-self-sufficient campus. The plan called for cutting-edge insulation and design augmented by solar and geothermal systems that would enable the campus to not only generate all its own power, but to sell electricity back to Arizona Public Service.

That plan took a blow when an accumulation of delays in the project pushed once-optimistic construction deadlines past the year-end expiration of lucrative federal incentives for building such systems.

Backers are now scrambling to reconfigure their plans, hoping they can still include a $65 million solar and geothermal system that would as a byproduct put a roof on the Payson Event Center.

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