After years of struggle, the Gila Community College (GCC) board voted Thursday to cut the check and approve the vast amounts of information collected to start the accreditation process.
To get to this point, GCC has had to win passage of trailblazing legislation, but the college still has more innovating to do.
“This will be the first time the Higher Learning Commission will be dealing with a provisional community college,” said Larry Stephenson GCC board member. “We’re breaking new ground — this will be a transition process.”
The Higher Learning Commission has accredited colleges since 1895, which ensures credits students earn will transfer to other schools and that their degree means something.
Currently, GCC pays dearly to use Eastern Arizona’s College (EAC) accreditation. The state also stiffs GCC for equalization money because of its provisional status.
The road to this juncture started three years ago when the Legislature approved a bill to allow the state’s two provisional college districts to seek independence.
“To become an independent district, we had to replace the population and property tax requirements with procedures,” said Stephenson.
The old law that connected population growth with property tax values would have made it impossible to form a new community college district anywhere in the state.
The new rules allow a provisional district to seek voter approval to become a regular district. That will involve significant upfront costs, but could also result in more state support and local control, as well as eliminating the 25 percent overhead charge GCC now pays to EAC.
Last year, Stephenson got serious about the accreditation process when he went to a conference hosted by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) to learn about the lengthy and onerous requirements to start GCC on the accreditation path.
HLC required GCC to collect 21 pieces of evidence to show that the college can qualify for accreditation.
Some of the requests HLC asked were vague, such as, “documentation attesting to legal status to operate as an institution offering higher learning in one of the state or sovereign nations within the HLC region…”
Cullen said Stephenson was a master at turning ambiguous requests into pointed responses. The two worked closely together on the project.
“Dean (Stephen) Cullen was a great help,” said Stephenson.
At the Feb. 20 meeting, the board approved cutting a check for $5,000 to cover processing fees and agreed that the information Cullen and Stephenson had collected could be submitted to HLC.