Hard Choices, Huge Benefits

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The newly bolstered Gila Community College board continues to struggle with urgent questions about the mission of the college — and the best way to serve a student population that desperately needs access to a quality, low-cost education.

The latest sign of the struggle emerged last week in the split vote on adopting a $6.5 million budget, which included a tuition increase for most students, a roughly 2 percent increase in the district’s property tax levy and another year of free tuition for seniors.

Board member Larry Stephenson voted against the budget to register his protest concerning both the tuition increase and the decision to maintain free tuition for seniors.

Once upon a time, Arizona’s community colleges offered a nearly free path to a college degree, which proved crucial for many first-generation college students as well as presenting an opportunity for people to retool and change careers. You could argue that this open-door access to a low-cost education distinguished the American system. Other countries forced students to take high-stakes tests in high school that determined their future. Top scoring students could attend the universities, but lower-scoring students had to settle for vocational school or low-skill jobs.

By contrast, the United States developed a system that allowed people to return to school whenever they wanted, leaving the door to higher education open to any student willing to work at it.

Perhaps that helps account for the enormous flexibility and adaptability of an economic system that allowed 5 percent of the world’s population to produce 40 percent of the world’s wealth for decades.

But we have largely abandoned the promise of the open door — as GCC’s budget woes demonstrate. The state constitution requires university tuition “as nearly free as possible.” Incredibly, the Legislature now thinks that means $10,000 annually. Driven to the wall by a dismaying decline in state support for community colleges, tuition levels have risen to $1,000 per semester for full-time students.

GCC faces special difficulties as a provisional community college, which means even less state support and more costs through its contract with Eastern Arizona College.

The board continues to grapple with the hard choices. Seniors provide a crucial customer base for the college — but they remain very price sensitive. After years of free tuition, the college cautiously imposed cut-rate tuition on seniors a few years ago. Enrollment dropped alarmingly — and the board rushed to reinstate the tuition waivers.

The district has made gains despite the financial difficulties. The college has added vocational programs, strengthened its partnership with Payson High School and returned to steadily building its enrollment. A record number of students graduated this year, including a strong core of nursing students — perhaps the college’s most important vocational program.

However, the shameful lack of support from the state has forced GCC to rely heavily on both tuition and property taxes. Homeowners in Gila County labor under a heavy property tax burden — since those taxes must support schools, colleges, fire department and even the sanitary district.

So we sympathize with the hard choices before the board. We also hope the people paying those property taxes understand the tremendous benefits this community reaps from the presence of the community college here.

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