Monday, December 1, 2008

Communiversity, part community college, part university announced

Surprise school will blend community college, university

Faced with an urgent need for accessible, affordable education, the West Valley is venturing into a brave new academic experiment.

Get ready for the "communiversity," which will debut this summer in Surprise.

Not quite a community college and not quite a university, a communiversity intends to offer the best of both.
"It's incredibly innovative," said Todd Aakhus, community-partnership director of Rio Salado College, which is leading the project. "This will be a national model."

Based on an idea gaining traction across the country, the communiversity is a partnership of three Maricopa Community Colleges and as many as five universities. Rio Salado, Glendale and Phoenix community colleges will join with four-year universities to bring education to students instead of having students travel to their campuses.
Sound confusing?

It's just different, said Anita Voogt, dean of the communiversity in Brookdale, N.J. She and others have advised Rio Salado on the Surprise project.

Voogt said that at first, people had trouble even pronouncing the name, much less understanding the concept. Now, seven years after it opened, "high-school counselors refer to the communiversity as a higher-educational option as though it's the most natural thing in the world," Voogt said.

The communiversity will do what a community college does best: offer fast, focused classes to adults and the first two years of basic education to high-school graduates. When students earn an associate degree, they will not have to transfer to a four-year campus hoping that most of their credits will be accepted. Instead, the student will continue on a path that could lead to a master's degree, even if more than one college is involved. University professors will come to the Surprise site and teach online, in-person or - if a hybrid - do both.

In New Jersey, a student can begin at Brookdale Community College and leave with a master's degree from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, without ever leaving the Brookdale campus.

It's cheaper as well. Communiversity students can often shave at least 33 percent from the cost of a bachelor's degree, Aakhus said.

Voogt said the plan has helped boost graduation rates, a problem so vexing that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced last month a $500 million initiative to help community-college students finish their studies. Nationally, only 36 percent of college-bound students from low-income households earn degrees.

That's bad news for a region trying to lure employers with high-paying jobs. It's also difficult for adults who face increasing unemployment and the need to find new work in a high-tech labor market.

There is a reason that business, education, health services and technology are some of the most popular courses at community colleges.

Surprise, the far West Valley and the rural reaches of Arizona could benefit from the focus on practical education. The city saw an influx of young families during the housing boom. New residents include schoolchildren who will need college, midcareer adults who need new skills and retirees who want a variety of classes.

The city is still growing, and officials want to attract solar companies, high-tech workplaces and health-care industries, which have fewer booms and busts. But these employers demand an educated workforce. That's why Surprise is leasing part of its new City Hall site to Rio Salado for the communiversity for $1 a year.

"In Surprise, we want to get as much education as we can," said Jon Hagen, the city's economic-development director. "Arizona is a very young state. The economy was built on tourism, construction, and extraction industries like mining. The current economic situation should point out to people that we need more economic diversification. A lot more of it should be a lot more sustainable."

Hagen said he expects the crashing economy will send many more people to the college doors.
Surprise officials realized two years ago that the housing downturn meant they would not need to build a planned 26,000-square-foot extension on the new City Hall, near Bell and Litchfield roads. The project with Rio Salado addressed two issues: the lack of a community college in the far West Valley, and the use of land that could sit vacant for 10 years.
The $9 million communiversity is funded by community-college district bonds that voters approved in 2004.

The communiversity model appealed to Rio Salado because it takes into account a recent study of future jobs in the West Valley and crafts its degrees around that, said Chris Bustamante, Rio Salado's vice president of community development and student services.
"That's what community colleges do very well: adapt to the needs of the economy," Bustamante said.

The model also mixes online and in-person education, so it could extend outside Valley boundaries.

Students and community colleges also benefit from the efficient use of credits. Communiversity colleges will accept up to 90 junior-college credits. Four-year colleges traditionally accept only 64 credits.

And the college district will be able to offer more bang for the educational buck, especially with the prospect of future community-college bonds diminishing, Bustamante said.

"There is so much need in the economy that we're looking for areas in which we can partner," he said. "In this partnership, we are not paying for land. We are not paying for parking. We don't have to pay for all of that with bond dollars. I believe this is a model we can look at in the future. We believe it will be successful."