Alas, the Gila Community College board continues to flail. Just when we thought the fault line between north and south had fallen dormant, the fissure has split open — cracking the foundations of Rim Country’s future.
The board last week split 3 to 1 on an abrupt decision to cut tuition rates and restore free tuition for seniors. Board president Larry Stephenson made the curious decision to exempt himself from the discussion and vote. But otherwise, the discussion revived the north/south split that has bedeviled the board of the provisional community college district for years.
Certainly, the board faces a real emergency and has few happy solutions. Enrollment has plunged in the past four years, for reasons that remain unclear.
Moreover, the decision to first eliminate the tuition waiver for seniors then to shift back to a deeply discounted rate seems to have played some role.
Long a mainstay of the Payson campus, the number of seniors enrolled dropped from 1,116 in 2009 to 568 in 2012. Interestingly, that number rose slightly to 589 in 2013.
The only category on the rise are high school-aged students. That’s a measure of the great value to parents and students of GCC’s partnership with Payson High School. That relationship allows students to get a jump on their college or vocational educations.
On the hopeful side, the board seems to recognize the urgent challenge the enrollment decline poses.
However, we were alarmed by the improvised, ad hoc discussion — and the rush to make decisions based on guesswork.
The district has offered no comprehensive analysis of the enrollment decline, so it’s hard to know how to respond. Worse yet, the board had no clear idea as to the likely impact of once more reversing course and restoring free tuition for seniors.
Three years ago, the state provided enough support for community colleges that even tuition-free classes could bring in a little extra money and make efficient use of the facilities. But the state has since cut aid to community colleges by about two-thirds.
The fragmented figures presented to the board last week suggest that a class full of seniors not paying tuition might not even bring in enough money to pay the professor — even if it’s a part-timer.
The community college’s struggle has big implications for the region. The district must build on its partnership with the high school, offer local students an affordable path toward a degree and build up successful vocational training programs.
Moreover, the district should work creatively and actively with groups trying to bring new industries to the region. Instead, people trying to lure new businesses and industries to Rim Country have had to turn to vocational training programs in the Valley to help lure new businesses.
Instead, the earth rumbles, the ground cracks and the painfully won progress made in recent years seems ready to slide into the pit. The district’s sitting now on a ledge. Time for the board to stop flailing and work out the escape route.