Struggling to cope with declines in enrollment and state support, the Gila Community College board last week again found itself mud wrestling with a tough question: Should it raise tuition?
The board found itself caught between board member Bob Ashford’s suggestion the district raise tuition between 5 and 10 percent and board member Tom Loeffler’s suggestion any increase focus on phasing out a big price break part-time students get when they stay below six units.
However, the board sidestepped the issue once again — postponing a decision to a future meeting.
The discussion took place in the shadow of a 10 percent drop in the number of students between 2011 and 2012. Previously, GCC had maintained one of the fastest growth rates in the state.
GCC already has by some measures the highest tuition in the state — thanks to the lack of state aid as a result of GCC’s unique status as a “provisional” community college district. As a result, GCC must rely on a contract with Eastern Arizona College in Safford for its credentials. The contract pays EAC about $1.2 million annually for its administrative services out of a budget of about $6 million.
The board already approved a big increase in the property tax rate, one of the few ways it has to balance its books given the lack of state support. The state formulas technically limit the annual increase in property tax collections to 2 percent, but because of a drop in assessed values in the district, the rate actually rose 9 percent.
The district gets two-thirds of its money from property taxes, 28 percent from tuition and only 7 percent in help from the state.
The tuition increase could provide more money — unless it resulted in another big drop in enrollment.
GCC charges $106 per unit, compared to EAC’s $80, Maricopa’s $76, and Pima’s $63. That per-unit charge tops out at 12 units costing $1,235, also one of the highest maximum charges in the state. Only Central Arizona Community College and Coconino Community College District have a higher maximum, but that’s because they keep charging more all the way up to 18-21 units.
The inexorable rise in GCC’s tuition comes in the face of rising poverty rates in the county and dwindling federal support for tuition-paying Pell Grants.
Some 19 percent of Gila County households live below the poverty line, compared to 15 percent statewide and 14 percent nationally.
The percentage of part-time students with Pell Grants between 2011 and 2012 dropped from 9 to 6 percent. The percentage of full-time students on Pell Grants dropped from 42 to 41 percent. Meanwhile, the total number of students receiving Pell Grants dropped by 17 percent.
The cut in scholarship support coupled with sharp increases in tuition at both the university and community college levels will likely make a college education much harder for middle class and working class families.
The GCC board didn’t discuss any changes in the deep discount the college now offers senior citizens. GCC remains heavily dependent on retirees who take electives like art, writing and computers for “enrichment.”
For some years, the college offered seniors tuition-free classes, largely to build up enrollment and draw in some additional state aid. As budget problems began to mount, the district eliminated the waiver for seniors. That prompted a big drop in enrollment. So the board last year instead gave seniors a 75 percent discount.
The enrollment figures released last week show an 18 percent drop in seniors taking 1-6 credits.
Meanwhile, the number of full-time students dropped 13 percent and the number of part-time students rose 12 percent. That might reflect a growing number of students who had to cut back due to costs from full time to part-time, together with a continued drop in retirees taking those enrichment courses.