Economic success and positive community growth are irrevocably linked to a quality higher education system.
That was the common theme for keynote speakers and most of the 50 or so participants at the late-November forum sponsored by Arizona Town Hall in cooperation with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University-Prescott.
Tara Jackson, president of the Phoenix-based ATH and organizer for the forum, praised the innovative efforts of Quad Cities’ institutions in attempting to expand higher education to serve more citizens.
“Higher education is a critical component of our communities and our culture. It’s important to recognize that education is an investment in our future,” she said.
Prescott’s Jeff Burt, director of economic initiatives for the City, echoed Jackson. He said, “It’s critical to the success of our communities to have strong higher education systems that fulfill the current and future workforce needs of employers. Research consistently shows an overwhelming correlation between economic success and academic achievement.”
Several participants noted that the Quad Cities have a unique advantage in rural Arizona because four local accredited higher education institutions offer degrees to students.
Those four are Yavapai Community College, Prescott College, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and Northern Arizona University-Yavapai. They serve the educational interests of thousands of students who otherwise might have to relocate to metropolitan areas for college degrees. Many of those students are non-traditional – older students returning to enhance their skills.
Some participants suggested that more support needs to be given higher education – not just in the Quad Cities but throughout Arizona – if business and economic growth are to be sustained.
Two college presidents, Dr. Penny Wills of Yavapai College and Dr. Kristin Woolever of Prescott College, stressed that future economic growth in Arizona will be influenced by the amount of support given to higher education.
“It disturbs me that in just my few years at Yavapai College, we’ve seen annual diminishing of support from the Arizona legislature. It seems few legislators really pay any attention to colleges,” Wills said. “But I think forums such as this can create more public awareness and support and a stronger educational climate.”
Woolever, president of a private college that enrolls more than 1,000 students for either undergraduate or graduate degrees, was critical of Arizona‘s rank on the national scene.
She said, “Shame on Arizona that we rank 40th out of 50 states in the percentage of high school students that go on to college. And shame on Arizona that the state ranks 49th of 50 states in financial support given to education.”
However, Woolever was optimistic that the pattern of more collaboration and cooperation among and between colleges and universities will have positive influence. “We now have the capability of providing online, hybrid and blended educational courses and programs on demand. We’re more able to pay attention to an underserved population.”
Arizona Board of Regents Institutional Analysis Director Dan Anderson praised the efforts of the state’s universities in making higher education opportunities accessible to more people through its partnership programs.
“We have more than 150 locations around the state where students can take college and university classes,” he said.
He cited the partnership between NAU and Yavapai College as an example. NAU has two campuses in the Quad Cities area. One is in Prescott Valley and the other is on the campus at Yavapai College.
NAU Campus Executive Officer Dr. Susan Johnstad said that between the two sites, more than 200 students, mostly YC transfers, currently seek NAU baccalaureate degrees. “What’s more, we’re able to offer special tuition plans that are about one-half what the cost would be on the main campus in Flagstaff. That converts to about $5,000 instead of $10,000 for in-state tuition,” she said. “We want to focus on educating students with careers which are viable in the local economy.”
Cooperation between NAU and Yavapai College may be enhanced further if steps proposed in a 10-year master plan developed by the YC governing board move forward. One program recommendation is the creation of a collaborative Center of Excellence for Nursing and Allied Health.
Other recommendations in the master plan include one for closing the YC Chino Valley campus and expanding the Prescott Valley campus. However, those recommendations are very preliminary. Before any significant changes occur, a cost analysis for each step must be developed, explained YC vice president for finance and administration, Clint Ewell, in a statement to the news media.
Yavapai College currently serves around 8,500 students. About 6,500 of them are part-time, according to data from Cappex, a Chicago-based information center that tracks more than 750 higher education institutions in the United States. Presently, YC students attend classes in Prescott, Prescott Valley, Chino Valley, the Verde Valley and Sedona. Tuition is modest – about $234 a credit hour, or about $1,700 a year, plus books and other fees.
On occasion, YC goes beyond the usual in advocating career opportunities. For instance, the college on Saturday, Dec. 14, YC offered a free “Mining & Technology” program to those interested in high-paying specialized jobs. One focus was on Diesel, Industrial Plant and Electrical Technology programs. Also featured was information about Freeport-McMoran scholarships, job placement and internships. Freeport-McMoran is the world’s largest producer of copper, gold and molybdenum and operates several mines in Arizona.
Those attending the forum formally praised the educational efforts of two private institutions in the Quad Cities area: Prescott College and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Though pricey – annual tuition and fees at Prescott College are more than $25,000, and at ERAU, more than $30,000 – both attract exceptional students who can earn both undergraduate and graduate degrees in highly marketable careers.
ERAU Chancellor Frank Ayers oversees an impressive undergraduate and graduate university where more than 1,700 of the “…highest GPA students in Arizona” can study for bachelor’s through doctoral degrees. Ayers and the community take pride in knowing that ERAU is “…rated number one in aviation and aerospace education programs, with more than 40 degree offerings.”
“We at ERAU want to continue expanding what we do, especially in cooperation with our sister institutions. We owe it to the communities and the state to make quality scientific, technological and professional opportunities accessible to as many people as we can,” he said.
Prescott resident George Ruffner, Ph. D., principal in EcoPlan & Associates, underscored Ayers’s comments. “To underestimate the importance of higher education in our economy and our state is a mistake we will rue for many, many, generations to come. Take a look at demographics. Arizona is changing. Let’s support expanding higher education opportunities in the community – or we’re dead!”
Following the forum, Prescott City Councilman Alan Carlow reacted positively to what he heard about expanding collegiate programs for the area, especially as they impacted the business and professional community.
“As we strive to improve business growth and retention, which creates regional wealth and jobs, a well-educated work force is the necessary foundation for these efforts,” said Carlow.
Assisting in organizing the forum was Lori Poloni-Staudinger, an NAU associate professor of politics and international affairs and the statewide coordinator for Arizona Deliberates. QCBN
By Ray Newton