A dramatic enrollment increase this year at Central Arizona College mirrors dramatic growth in Pinal County, college officials said.
And if demand for higher education there continues to grow with the population, the community college could hit its enrollment capacity in the next 18 months, college president Terry Calaway said.
He cited the college’s most recent enrollment figures, which show an 11.4 percent increase in full-time student equivalent enrollment (an average based on the total number of student credit hours) from 2,696 students in fall 2004 to 3,003 as of last week. Total headcount enrollment increased by 337 students or 6.8 percent, from 4,980 last fall to 5,317 this semester.
"We were predicting growth, but not quite that large," Calaway said.
Demographic studies done before the college took a $435 million expansion plan to voters last May now appear to fall short in forecasting the county’s rapid growth, he added.
Voters turned down the bond in the special election; 59 percent of the 11,875 who turned out voted against it, 41 percent for it. Organized opposition to the bond, in the form of Gold Canyon resident Doug DeHaan’s No Open Checkbook Committee, argued that the county’s property taxes were already too high. The committee said the total repayment cost of nearly $759 million was too much and the 32-year term was too long.
Calaway said college officials have met with many of those who opposed the bond. Smaller bonds with shorter terms and separate elections emerged as a possible solution to the challenge of increasing enrollment and decreasing space. Additional focus groups with residents will likely take place later this year and early next, Calaway said. The earliest the college would return a bond proposal to voters is November 2006.
Opposition leader DeHaan said he was open to new proposals.
"We just thought what they wanted was too much," he said. "We’re not opposed to the college, we just have to be able to pay for it."
In the meantime, the college has to be able to accommodate rising enrollment with existing facilities. The bond would have allowed the college to add to or renovate its facilities in Apache Junction, Coolidge, Winkelman, Casa Grande and Florence. New facilities would have been built in the San Tan area, Maricopa, Eloy, Oracle Junction and elsewhere by 2021.
Instead, the college is in lease discussions, said Dennis Jenkins, vice president of finance and community development. Courses are being offered this fall in leased space at Maricopa High School in Maricopa and at Walker Butte Elementary in Johnson Ranch. About 110 students take general education courses at the elementary school and a golf class that meets at the community’s golf course.
"We’re having to look at alternative methods of fulfilling the needs," Jenkins said.
Leasing space in new communities and planning carefully for night and weekend program expansions could help the college avoid an enrollment cap. The college’s Superstition Mountain campus in Apache Junction, with a current enrollment of 912, is only 400 students away from full capacity, and the Signal Peak Campus near Coolidge, with a current enrollment of 2,733, could probably only add another 500, Calaway said.
Some of Central Arizona College’s space problems will be solved when it cuts the ribbon on a new 35,000-squarefoot classroom building at the Signal Peak Campus on Oct. 10. The Gloria R. Sheldon University Center will allow fouryear universities to offer bachelor’s or graduate degree courses to Pinal County residents in its interactive classrooms. The $4.5 million center was paid for by the college and the Pinal County University Foundation, which raised money from public and private sources.
Still, the need for a longterm solution to the college’s growth is pressing.
"That building will give us some classroom space, but very quickly that will be filled out," Calaway said.