Community College Seeks Partnership With University

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Gila Community College needs to do a much better job of partnering with the Rim Country Educational Alliance, the board decided recently.

Board member Tom Loeffler suggested the 3,400-student community college district set up a committee to work with the backers of a proposed university in Payson — presumably Arizona State University.

“It might be better for us to be proactive and start work on different ideas of what we could do with them. I think that campus is going to happen and we need to get ready.”

Board president Larry Stephenson suggested the GCC administrators start out by reporting on the range of existing partnerships between universities and community colleges — especially programs that allow students to get a degree more quickly at a lower cost by taking general education courses at the community college.

“There are general programs now,” said Stephenson. “We need to start with an understanding of those programs. The four-year campus has yet to be built, but I would like to approach this systematically.”

Board member Bernadette Kniffin agreed. “It’s really a good idea and dreams do come true and it sounds like it’s on its way.”

Board member Bob Ashford also supported the idea of a partnership. “You have my 120 percent support: Whatever you need from me.”

The relationship between the Alliance and GCC has sputtered along in the two years backers have worked doggedly to build a 6,000-student university campus with various spinoff businesses, including a research park, dorms, a 500-room convention hotel and an incubator center, charged with turning faculty research into commercial products.

At one point, the Alliance sought and received the GCC board’s backing for a shared solar and geothermal power generating facility. The Alliance hoped to snag valuable federal incentives by starting work on the alternative energy project last year, although it didn’t yet have an agreement with Arizona State University to build a campus here — which would have provided the necessary market for the energy.

Instead, GCC agreed to cooperate in the grant application and get power to its campus from the first phase.

However, negotiations with ASU bogged down, delaying the solar and geothermal project.

GCC and the Alliance then wound up at cross purposes when the Alliance asked Gila County to sell it 21 acres north of the highway the county was holding in trust for GCC.

The GCC board passed a resolution supporting the construction of a university campus here, but raising various objections to the land sale. The GCC board wanted the county to sell the Alliance less land and to bar any non-educational uses of the property — like an industrial park.

The county ultimately ignored most of those restrictions and sold the Alliance the 21 acres for $600,000.

The county also turned over to GCC another big chunk of land, including the land on which the present campus sits.

However, persistent questions raised about the land sale by GCC board members have served to alienate members of the Alliance board, who have privately complained about GCC doing more to block the project than to support it.

Presumably, a committee established to develop the partnership between the two colleges could smooth out those problems and work out an intimate partnership, to the advantage of students.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, for instance, has wondered aloud whether the Alliance might eventually let GCC use the classroom and dorms built in phase one north of the highway as the university shifts to later phases built just across the highway.

However, on Friday the GCC board focused mostly on the kinds of existing partnerships between universities and community colleges.

For instance, Eastern Arizona College recently struck a deal with Arizona State University that would allow students to essentially earn a four-year degree on EAC’s Safford campus. A community college district in Yuma, meanwhile, has worked out a deal with Northern Arizona University that would allow students to complete three years of work in Yuma before finishing up at NAU in Flagstaff.

Other partnerships simply coordinate class schedules to make sure that all the classes taken at the community college will transfer to a particular degree program at the university. That allows students to live at home and complete two years of schooling at much lower community college rates, before shifting to the university — a savings of tens of thousands of dollars.

Loeffler said “right now students at EAC (in Safford) can get a four-year degree without leaving home. That cannot happen at this campus now, but it would be a tremendous benefit if we could bring that to our campus.”

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