Students graduating from Chandler Unified School District's Perry High School last year largely chose community colleges - Chandler-Gilbert Community College, in particular - for their postsecondary plans.
While 41 percent of the school's graduating students chose a community college, 32 percent picked an in-state university and another 14 percent moved out of state for college, the numbers are similar for other East Valley schools and districts, with community colleges and in-state schools topping student choices. Though those schools may come to mind first, Arizona boasts more than 200 postsecondary options for students.
Many education leaders say there's still room for more.
Arizona is home to the largest university in country in Arizona State University, with its growing presence and multiple campuses. Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona - and all their campus expansions - round out the big three. Grand Canyon University, a for-profit school, has a presence in the East Valley. Health career schools like Mesa's A.T. Still University and Midwestern University, along with Ottawa University in Chandler, the University of Phoenix, and other specialty schools make up a number of varying postsecondary choices.
But there are still options lacking in Arizona, some say, such as small college choices, additional medical schools, and a veterinary college.
"A year ago I was in Boston. Every two blocks there's another university. There's a liberal arts school, a technology school, a full-blown university," said Mesa Unified School District superintendent Mike Cowan. "It kind of speaks to that community's emphasis for quality education for their students beyond high school."
"I think for a community our size (greater Phoenix) we have very limited college options for our students. Yes, we have a great university down the street from us, but when you compare that to other major communities in the county, we do not have as diverse a representation as others," Cowan said.
East Valley leaders hope to change that. In addition to its developing presence in downtown Phoenix, the University of Arizona College of Medicine has also planted its foot in Chandler. A group of researchers with the college have lab space in the Innovations Complex, located at Stellar Airpark, and the university is in talks with the city to possibly bring more medical classes to downtown Chandler.
In Mesa, the focus is centered on bringing nonprofit universities to the Valley because there are already a large number of for-profit schools, leaders said. They also want to focus on adding higher education programs that don't compete with what's already here. The city recently announced it is in talks with Benedictine University, a private, Catholic school, to open a campus there in 2013.
In the past, other institutions may have resisted coming to Arizona because they couldn't compete with the tuition at public universities, said Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
While ASU's tuition this year approaches $10,000 today, just five years ago - Fall 2006 - tuition and fees were $2,300 a semester. Since the cost has gone up, other postsecondary schools may see an opening, Crandall said.
"Now that we're close to $10,000, it's more attractive from a competitive standpoint. They think, ‘We could charge something like that and make it work,'" Crandall said.
It's a win-win situation, he said.
"When you have that clustering of colleges, everybody does better. I think it has a lot to do with the college degrees. ... When people graduate from those colleges, they often stay in the community," he said.
Arizona's public colleges - all agreed - are doing a good job in creating opportunities for students. NAU just announced plans to offer a physician's assistant program for the first time - and expand its physical therapy program - on the UA College of Medicine's Phoenix campus. ASU's main campus is headquarters for The W. P. Carey School of Business, one of the largest business schools in the United States.
Students at Maricopa Community College District campuses can easily transfer to the state universities through several programs - some may earn a four-year degree through university partnerships - without leaving the smaller community college campuses.
About 25 percent of Mesa Community College students do transfer to one of the state universities, said MCC President Shouan Pan.
But those aren't the only options.
"We also have a great deal of articulation agreements with both public and private institutions," he said.
With those in place, students can take a large number of their undergraduate classes - and pay less - then transfer, knowing their credits will be accepted.
Pan welcomes the announcement from Benedictine University and hopes to work with the school to offer a similar partnership.
"To have more options or choices is, I think, a good thing for the city, for our East Valley," he said. "I believe offering different venues, different options is good. Benedictine is a Roman Catholic tradition. They very much emphasize a value-centered, liberal arts education. It offers a different dimension to the city, to the area."
Even the group that oversees the state's universities said it's a good move for Arizona.
"The addition of an array of private schools is a great thing for the state of Arizona - and long overdue," said Fred DuVal, Arizona Board of Regents chairman.
While the number of universities in Arizona is less, the percentage of students serviced by Arizona's universities is the same as similar states, DuVal said.
"All of our schools have seen robust growth rates and they've continued to admit more students who qualify every year, all at a lower levels of funding," DuVal said about having enough universities to educate the state. "But that growth is nearing being restrained by funding limitations."
It also means more students on campuses, and some high school graduates may want a smaller environment, said Luis Avila, interim executive director for Stand for Children Arizona, a group that advocates for education in the state.
"What we've noticed in talking to our parents is that even though ASU is a public university, and it's probably one of the lowest cost universities in the country, really it's so big it's not the experience every student wants. It's not the only choice kids or families would like to have," Avila said.
"Sometimes they look around and they don't see anything else," Avila said. "We need more nonprofit options where kids can attend where they can get a different experience. Just like we're doing with the K-12 experience with traditional school, magnet school and charter schools, families have options to take from. I think it's important for families to have options when it comes to higher education."
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