Get this: An energetic Payson High School student can graduate with not only a high school diploma — but a community college degree

Mesa Community College figures it costs about $32,000 to get a degree down there, if you add about $3,700 for tuition to all the other expenses.

And what’s it cost for a Payson High School student?

Wait for it.


Free, free, free.


So, naturally enough the Payson School Board was pretty much dancing in the aisles last week when it renewed its dual-enrollment course program with Gila Community College.

The program is possible because the Aspire Arizona Foundation, established by the MHA Foundation, covers the cost of tuition for college courses taught on the PHS campus by a combination of instructors from the college and the high school.

The courses all meet community college standards, which means they’re more rigorous and demanding than most high school classes, but they will all transfer to any state university if the student wants to continue and get a four-year university degree.

“It’s a fabulous program,” said board president Barbara Underwood.

“As the parent of three children,” said board member Jolynn Schinstock, “I think this is an amazing program. Maybe we’re not advertising it as well as we could. I tried to find something on the website. I couldn’t find anything except the Aspire icon — and you couldn’t tell anything from that. I’d like to see us do some advertising and some marketing.”

PHS Principal Jeff Simon said last year students earned 1,200 college credits through the program. Two students earned a community college AA degree.

Either existing GCC instructors or Payson High School teachers with a master’s degree in the subject act as instructors. The class must meet all of the state requirements for community college courses, including qualifying for transfer to the universities.

The college pays the instructors, Aspire Arizona pays the tuition and the district pays for textbooks and other materials, leaving only scattered fees for things like labs for the families to cover.

The program represents a win/win/win for the district, the college and the families, thanks to the fundraising and support from Aspire Arizona. The college last year collected $16,000 in enrollment support from the state. The families saved thousands of dollars they would have paid for the same classes in college. The high school offered advanced classes it would otherwise struggle to staff.

Moreover, finishing the introductory, college survey courses in high school enables students to dive into the more advanced classes in their majors as soon as they get to the university, said Underwood.

The dual-enrollment program has mostly replaced advanced placement classes at the high school. Students who take an AP class can also earn college credit, but only if they get a high enough score on a test at the end of the course. Even then, there’s no guarantee the course will transfer. Perhaps one-third of AP students end up actually getting the college credit.

The dual-enrollment program has proven so successful, Aspire Arizona this year has said it will pay for three classes per semester. Before, Aspire Arizona limited the tuition offer to one or two classes per semester.

Simon said the program is limited now by the number of students willing to tackle the more challenging classes. So far, juniors and seniors have accounted for most of the students, with a handful of sophomores. The agreement with GCC specifies that the classes will not drop below six students nor grow beyond 35 students — which is consistent with the class size requirements on the GCC campus.

“If we were offering a ton of different classes, the class sizes are going to get smaller and we might end up with a calculus class with only nine students,” said Simon.

Underwood wondered whether the district could enroll more freshmen and sophomores — or perhaps draw in middle school students.

But one parent in the audience said, “They have to be mentally ready for a college class. Very few freshmen and sophomores are ready to put in the rigor of a college class. We don’t want to burn out the 14- and 15-year-olds. And we don’t want to water down the content. They have to have the maturity to be successful.”

Simon said the school hopes to talk up the program with students and parents to continue building up enrollment.

“It’s in the handbook and the kids know about it when they go into registration. We’re going to start pushing out some of the great things we do. We put a ton of stuff on Facebook — with a lot of focus on dual enrollment,” said Simon.

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