College enrollment is down nationwide due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As vaccines are administered and virus numbers improve, Arizona Western College, the community college that serves Yuma and La Paz Counties, is looking to reconnect lost students and expand access to higher education in the region. AWC President, Dr. Daniel Corr, talks about a new partnership with the state's three public universities and a push by state lawmakers to allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees.
HOST (Lou Gum): This is Arizona Edition on KAWC. I'm Lou Gum.
The topic today is higher education in Arizona, with our focus on Yuma and La Paz Counties.
Last week the Arizona Board of Regents announced the Arizona Innovation Alliance. It is a partnership of the state’s three public universities - Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona - to enhance public higher education across the state.
The first place the alliance will focus on to improve the retention, graduation and academic performance of traditionally underserved students is Yuma. They will be working with Arizona Western College to figure out exactly how to do it.
At the same time, this week we have news of efforts by the Arizona Legislature to expand four-year degree opportunities by allowing state community colleges to offer them. An effort that is now in the State Senate.
To talk about both of these big ideas, and their implications for Yuma, our guest today is a AWC President, Doctor Daniel Corr.
Expanding four-year degree options in the state is suddenly a hot topic, particularly for our region. This is interesting stuff. So, there are a couple of big ideas out there and you're the guy all about big ideas, so I wanted to talk to you about them.
But first, why either of these ideas might be really important, given the ongoing but hopefully improving COVID-19 pandemic. Can we start with, kind of the current state of affairs at AWC? The pandemic impacted enrollment, which is key to really everything that the college is able to do. Talk about the current semester and the steps the college has taken in reaction to this pandemic.
GUEST (Dr. Danile Corr):
Yeah, happy to Lou and always great to be with you.
So, our enrollment is down 17% this semester and you know that's huge, and I will share with you, that is not out of line with what's going on in the state and across the nation. Community colleges have been particularly hit hard with our enrollment. And you know the really dangerous part of this is students of color, first-generation students, and students who are fully Pell eligible, or the most in economic need, are the least likely to have enrolled this year. So, the folks that we have spent a lifetime in Community College administration attracting too, provided access and success to, have in large numbers not shown up at our doors this year.
Yeah, so that's a huge concern. It’s not a huge concern for the college, it’s a concern for our community. It’s a concern for our state, it’s a concern for our nation, we need to reconnect these students to the educational system.
It's also not exclusive to community colleges. You know, are K-12 educational partners are just doing heroic efforts to try to stay connected with students. But even there, there are thousands of students who are disconnecting from the educational system.
So, just this week Arizona Western College took a really bold, really innovative step that says, starting
with our second eight-week classes March 8th, as well as for the entire summer semester, tuition and fees are being waived for any high school student in Yuma and La Paz County.
We want these students to reconnect with education, ideally reconnect to higher education, put themselves on a path to earning a degree. And through our amazing partnership with, like at Yuma Union High School, if a high school student is short a couple of credits to graduate this May, they can take a couple of classes, making sure they're the right ones, we want them to coordinate with their counselor. But they can take two AWC classes and reconnect, and then they will reverse transfer those credits to high school so they get them across the high school finish line and they've already got a head start on college.
Again, tuition and fees waived for the second eight weeks of the spring semester and the entire summer semester for our high school population, everywhere in our district, no matter the feeder high school.
LG: And that's a big plan locally, and ideally will pay off into next semester and into people trying to complete at least a two-year degree.
DC: That’s exactly right, that's exactly right.
We, you know, our best hope is that we connect with these high school students, they connect with the college. They understand that a college degree, a two-year degree or Baccalaureate degree, is in their future and that they enroll, you know re-enroll in the fall.
So again, we want to get folks across that high school finish line because that's good for this community. We want to connect them to higher Ed, I think that's good for this community, and we want them to earn Baccalaureate degrees in higher numbers than our region is right now. That's good for this community.
LG: Is the talk among you and your colleagues across the state that, say this time next year, things will look better, kind of no matter what. Or do you think that permanent changes has impacted education that will make you rethink how you look, even a year, two years from now?
DC: You know, Lou, a little bit of both really.
So, we're planning on a fall semester that will have a predominant number of face-to-face courses. Kind of the “back to normal,” if you will, and it’s just because if we need to adjust its maybe easier to adjust to the distance than trying to readjust to face-to-face. So, we’re planning on a largely face-to-face experience, the “normal” experience for the fall.
But we we've been exposed to new technology, right? We're doing real time Zoom classes. We're augmenting face-to-face classes with, you know, Zoom classes. We’re providing human and support services from a distance. All of that is going to continue just like a segment of our work population, employee population, will work from a distance. Your job is changed my job is changed. Where we do it, when we do it, how we do it, how we are utilized, None of that goes away. We just want to take the good parts of that and apply it to our educational enterprise moving forward.
LG: Alright, so you're a fan of, anyone who's heard you on this show or seen you in the media knows, you're a fan of big ideas, big hairy audacious goals you like.
So, as a fan of big ideas, you now get to wrestle with two more. Help us clarify some news that has come out in the past week or so.
We're hearing about two ideas to expand degree options in the state, and particularly in Yuma.
And I'd like to hear how maybe AWC is involved, but let's address this House Bill first. House Bill 2523. It recently passed the House. A similar effort failed in the Legislature last year. Tell us about this bill, what you know about it? What you've heard about it? I know we talked a little bit about it last year when it never made it out of committee.
DC: Yeah. Yeah. So, this would authorize community colleges to offer Baccalaureate degrees.
Arizona Western College and myself, as its president, are not in favor of this.
We feel, I feel, I'll speak for myself. I feel there is a much better way to increase access to Baccalaureate degrees in Yuma County and that is partnering with our three amazing state university partners, the three existing state universities, expanding their offerings, expanding their footprint on our campus expanding the resources that they bring to Yuma.
I think this is frankly, a dangerous expansion of the Community College mission, We’re already expected to serve non-credit, credit offerings, developmental education, honors type programming.
I think the ability for us, with our existing budget. This comes with no budget. It just gives you the opportunity to do it, to offer Baccalaureate degrees. I frankly feel there's a much better way and we're currently modeling it in Yuma with our university partnerships.
It also opens the door for Arizona Western College to be governed, at least in part, by the Arizona Border Regents out of Phoenix. As opposed to the five locally elected district governing board members who reflect the values of this community, have a pulse on the needs and wishes and desires and aspirations of this community, and that live down the block from you and I. They're running the college right now. They are my five bosses, and I think that is a better setup structurally than reporting to the Arizona Board of Regents potentially.
LG: Realistically, at $88.00 a credit hour, could the college even do it without raising that? There's at least a board member from Maricopa County Community College who thinks that that's reasonable, that they could offer that credit hour rate through a four-year degree? Is that even reasonable with the staff, and, as you say, the other mandates you have?
DC: As I sharpen the pencil to do the math? No. This legislation allows up to 150% of current tuition, that I would take it to about $132. But even then, I mean you show me a state university that is charging approximately 132 bucks a credit hour. It doesn't exist. That university doesn't exist. Not in Arizona, not anywhere else.
So, to magically think that somehow community colleges, under already constrained budget parameters, would be able to pull this off. I don't see a path there. And even, again, even if there were a path, my primary objection is not necessarily fiscally, although that's not to be discounted. It has to do with the fact that we have three amazing universities in Arizona with a presence on our campus and a desire to partner to increase access across Yuma and La Paz County.
LG: This is the farthest a bill like this has gone in the Arizona Legislature. How seriously are you watching and listening?
DC: Oh, I spend a chunk of my morning talking about it, Lou.
Really. We meet, the ten community college CEOs meet monthly. There was much discussion. And I know that many of my colleagues very much support it. Some of their boards very much support it. I reiterated some of what I see to be the challenges in this legislation. So, like all legislation, you know, a whole lot of things happen.
As you know, at the very tail end of a session, when things make it into the final budget, you know, signed into law, or don't. So, I am monitoring very closely.
LG: Our guest today is Dr. Daniel Corr, President of Arizona Western College.
When we come back, the Arizona Innovation Alliance. What is it, and what impact could it have on higher education in Yuma?
I'm Lou Gum this is Arizona Edition on KAWC. We'll be right back.
LG: Welcome back to Arizona Edition on KAWC. I'm Lou Gum.
My guest today is Dr. Daniel Corr, President of Arizona Western College. We've been talking about higher education in Yuma.
Those partnerships that Arizona Western College has with the other three state universities? That's really important to this other initiative through the Arizona Board of Regents - the Arizona Innovation Alliance. First of all, let's talk about, before we get into that, what is a AWC's current relationship with the three public universities in Arizona?
DC: Our relationship is unique. It really is unique in the state.
All three state universities have a physical presence on our campus, offer face-to-face Baccalaureate degrees and in some cases, masters degrees. We share the library. They have faculty, they run face-to-face programs. Heck, in May, we have a shared graduation, as we have traditionally. Where all three state universities and Arizona Western College have one graduation. It's a big celebration. It really is. I describe it as 51% graduation 49% Community pep rally. It's loud, it's raucous. It celebratory. So, we have that. We have a very much a unique. I mean you come on our campus. You see signs on buildings, Northern Arizona University. You see the big “A” of the University of Arizona across the street. There is a strong university presence on our campus and that's amazing, that's great.
LG: So, this Arizona Innovation Alliance shows a real commitment on the part of the Board of Regents to focus on the region like ours. So, what is it? It sets some big goals, which you like, but what is the actual plan?
DC: So, you're going to have me back in about six months, Lou, and I'm going tell you what the actual plan is. Because the plan is to do more, but we don't know what the specifics are.
So, at the Arizona Board of Regents meeting this month I was invited to present to the Regents, on behalf of the President of the Board of Regents, Doctor Penley. Doctor Larry Penley, as well as the executive director John Arnold and the Arizona Innovation Alliance wants to increase access, and success, to higher education outside Flagstaff, Tucson, and Tempe.
And because I had worked with the Board of Regents previously, particularly Doctor Penley, advocated on behalf of Yuma, advocated on behalf of bringing more assets to this community. The Regents took action and we, meaning Arizona Western College in Yuma, were identified as the very first area in which this new alliance, which was just formed in November of 2020, so we will have our first meeting, all three state universities and Arizona Western College, I'll represent the college in that meeting, and we're going to talk about how to increase services, programs from the three state universities under the coordinating body of ABOR in Yuma, ideally right on Arizona Western College’s campus. So, it's a commitment right now and the details are going to be worked out probably over the next two to three months.
LG: This is, well, what distinguishes it from legislative action is that it's something that can seemingly happen right away.
DC: You bet. Yeah, yeah. We have our first meeting scheduled for early March so it does not need legislative action. It's ready to roll.
LG: Let's talk about why any of this is important.
You've set some big hairy audacious goals as president of Arizona Western College, not just for the college, but for the community. You've talked about combating poverty in the community, as well as educational attainment, and about community success. Expand on that a little bit. Why are any of these initiatives important for Yuma, in particular? What could change here?
DC: Well, you know right now we are, our adult population 25 and older have achieved a Baccalaureate degree at roughly half the rate to the state of Arizona, which is a little bit under the United States average. So, we talk in our mission and vision statement of eliminating poverty of creating thriving communities, of transforming lives. Education is what does that. We need a better educated populace to attract and retain the businesses that will attract and retain residents to this community.
So, we are talking about Baccalaureate attainment and what makes that so audacious is that Arizona Western College does not offer Baccalaureate degrees, does not want to offer Baccalaureate degrees. But wants to be the catalyst, with partners in our university partners, that catalyst in this process that will drive a college going culture among our high school population through the college on to our university partners and increase that Baccalaureate attainment.
We know that for many students, they want to go away. They want to go to Flagstaff. They want to go to Tempe. They want to go to Tucson. That's great and we want them to do that if that is their goal. We also know that many students want to stay in Yuma, want to stay at home, have family obligations. The financial pressures of living away are too much. They want to stay here.
Therefore, we want them to have access to the higher education programs that they want right here in Yuma, right here on the Arizona Western College campus.
LG: One of the interesting things about the Arizona Innovation Alliance press release from ABOR is it noted something that you kind of addressed earlier in the conversation about giving tuition breaks to high school students?
We have very successful high school students, but it identifies, and so does that program, a hiccup that seems to happen, and that is that we've got these excelling students who aren't taking that next step.
DC: Yeah. So, here's the great disconnect. Lou. Our high schools have a very high graduation rate and doing really well. Gina Thompson and her crew at Yuma Union High School, amazing!
And Arizona, Western College awards associate degrees at roughly three times the state average.
I don't know that everyone knows that. And hopefully KAWC will help me get the word out.
Arizona Western College is awarding associate degrees at roughly three times the state average. Yet we're close to half in terms of Baccalaureate attainment.
There is a disconnect there and what the Arizona Innovation Alliance, in partnership with AWC, is to address just that gap. High performing high schools, high performing community college, and yet we're not getting the Baccalaureate attainment we need. That's what this seeks to address. What's the missing piece there? What's this secret sauce that we need to improve Baccalaureate achievement?
LG: Let's end on, unfortunately, Covid and the colleges response.
How has Covid impacted the college, we’re about a year now into the pandemic, hopefully coming out into some bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Can you tell us how the college has maintained itself in particular with regard to the pandemic?
DC: Yeah. Lou, you know we could talk for an hour on that right? It's just been a struggle. It's been a slog, you know, as CDC guidance changed, we tried to pivot. We tried to remain flexible, responsive to our students, and along those lines we sent out a student survey at the beginning of this semester. Lou, we got almost 500 student response. We think we know what they're experiencing, but we wanted to know what they're experiencing and we got just some great student feedback.
You know, they talked about the need for mental health support. They talked about technology challenges. They talked about feeling disconnected from their education. They talked about the challenges of studying from home, perhaps with younger siblings who were also studying from home, sharing one device.
But they also. We also asked them to name someone at the college who had a positive impact. And they went into great lengths about our amazing faculty, who reached out to them and helped them.
If anything, it helped us refocus on our purpose of serving our students, transforming lives, eliminating poverty, creating thriving communities. It kept us focused on that, but I have to tell you, you know there is some level of decision fatigue among us all as we on a daily basis try to do what the data in front of us on that particular day told us is the best thing to do.
LG: What's the current state of how classes are being conducted now? Is it still a mix of hybrid and in person?
DC: It is. It is still primarily from a distance. There are in person courses. There are at many lab courses.
We're adhering to CDC guidelines, so most of those have just nine students in a classroom at any one given time.
Now, as we look to transition to the summer and then particularly on to the fall, we’ll be increasingly back to face-to-face. But again, until there are specific CDC guidelines, you know, the one consistency has been is we're going to follow CDC guidance and just, that's kind of our bedrock, our true north, if you will, as we work through this.
LG: Doctor Daniel Corr, President of Arizona Western College. As always, thank you so much for your time.
DC: Absolutely. It really is a great day to be a Matador, now, isn't it?
LG: My conversation with Dr. Corr took place Thursday afternoon.
At the time House Bill 2523 had passed through the Arizona House by a vote of 57 to three. Yuma District 4 State Representative Charlene Fernandez voted no, Representative Joel John of District 4 voted yes, as did both District 13 representatives, Tim Dunn and Joanne Osborne.
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I'm Lou Gum. This is Arizona Edition on KAWC.
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