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Arizona's universities, community colleges join forces

Tags: asu, community college, nau, ua




TUCSON — Peter Kozak has wanted to be an engineer since high school. After taking drafting classes and helping build a more fuel-efficient vehicle, the Illinois native moved to Tucson with the goal of graduating from the University of Arizona’s engineering college.

But rather then entering the UA right away, Kozak enrolled at Pima Community College to save money on tuition and get more attention in class. Kozak, 21, isn’t a typical transfer student. He’s on a specialized path that has allowed him to work in research labs at both institutions while not having to worry whether the UA will take all his credits.

The UA-PCC partnership is a prime example of how higher education in Arizona is changing as the state’s three universities seek to expand their degree offerings into all regions of the state through better community college partnerships, increased online offerings and the construction of new four-year colleges.

Using faculty focused solely on teaching and sharing costs with community colleges, cities and towns, the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University plan to offer degrees at several regional campuses that would be cheaper to both the student and the state, increasing access to populations that wouldn’t have attended college in the past.

The bold plans from university and state Board of Regents leaders could cost millions and come during difficult economic times. But officials say systemic change is essential if Arizonans want to attract higher-paying jobs, fatten tax coffers and keep the state’s best and brightest from leaving after graduation.

Community colleges are key to the plans. With ready-made facilities, advisers and faculty members, the institutions are the most cost-effective and efficient means to produce the extra 30,000 university students a year education leaders envision. Also, they get most of their funding from local taxes rather than from the state, so they’re not subject to the same legislative pressures and cost-cutting now plaguing Arizona universities.

Under the plan, students would attend community college for two years. Universities would hire faculty focused on teaching — as opposed to research — to teach the final two years. Through a combination of factors, the universities believe they can offer students the same quality in popular degree programs, such as communications, business and education, that can be found on university campuses — but at a lower cost.

The programs would operate in much the same way Kozak’s engineering program works. Students would meet often with advisers at both institutions, who would set clear guidelines on what classes would qualify for the degree program and would be guaranteed to transfer.

The ultimate goal is to get students to see the community-college-to-university path as a four-year goal, as opposed to two separate, unrelated years, said Mike Proctor, dean of the UA’s Outreach College.

“You want to create a seamless program where you have no risk of losing units or having to repeat units,” he said.

Officials from all three universities agree that the transition from community college to state university needs to be improved, especially considering the small percentage of students who transfer now. State figures show that about 9,500 in-state students each year who are eligible to attend a university choose to go to a community college instead. But of those students, only about 1,500 transfer to a state university within six years.

While many students earn an associate’s degree and go straight to work, others would like to transfer but become discouraged when they learn they might have to take a particular class again, Proctor said.

ASU Provost Elizabeth Capaldi said the experience can lead students to drop out.

“Kids leave because they feel like they’re failing,” she said.

By working with community colleges to align both institutions’ curriculums, the universities hope the number of transfers will increase, Proctor said.

“We want to take away any risk of dropping the baton,” he said. “We want a greased, perfectly aligned set of programs that allow that kind of flexibility that students need to get a UA degree.”

The population base already exists at community colleges. Arizona community colleges enrolled around 200,000 students in both 2006 and 2007. Enrollment is expected to increase as more people look for retraining due to economic conditions.

Increasing the support structure for students — especially in areas of the state where many are likely to be the first in their family to attend college — is crucial if Arizona is to increase the number of college graduates, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an educational think tank based in San Jose, Calif. The universities must make sure that the public is aware of the new options and the support that students will receive.

“The message you want to give to Arizona kids is that there is something that will match your interests, needs and aspirations, and if you’re qualified, you can go there,” Callan said.

For Kozak, the aspiring engineer, the transition to the UA has been easy. He took three classes at the UA last spring while working on two research projects.

“The information is provided pretty clearly, so my focus is making sure that I’m learning what I need to learn in the classes that I’m taking,” he said.

He likes the idea that future students will be able to enter more programs like the one he’s participated in, providing them a valuable learning experience at a lower cost.

“I really think that the future of college education in this country is going to be a mixture of community colleges and university work,” he said.

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Arizona Daily Star writer Becky Pallack contributed to this report.

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