Julian Easter introduced our speaker and esteemed guest, the president of Central Arizona College, Dr. Doris Helmich. Since she assumed the position of president in 2011, Dr. Helmich has steered the culture of CAC away from a bottom-line-only mentality to one that is based on student learning. Dr. Helmich is also a fellow Rotarian, belonging to the Saddlebrook club.
Because the projector and screen were not available for Dr. Helmich’s presentation, she opted to “make this interactive” and opened the floor for questions. It turned out to be a lively, informative, and enlightening discussion, and we thank Harvey for overlooking the audio/video request.
President’s Proposal for Free Tuition
Although the tuition at community colleges is relatively inexpensive, the proposed budget for two years of free tuition for students across the country is $60 billion. Dr. Helmich stated that “the devil is in the details, and we don’t have a lot of details available right now,” but she is worried about retention. The CAC Governing Board has always wanted to increase access to education for students, so they have purposely kept tuition as low as possible – $81 per credit hour as opposed to $800 per credit hour at ASU – but “free” often results in a lack of buy-in. If students don’t invest in their own education, they feel less obligated to complete their degree. That is why CAC requires the recipients of their scholarships to meet certain obligations: GPA requirements, paying for books and providing their own transportation, for example. “That may be true of the president’s plan as well, but we just don’t know yet.”
Retention for “Promise for the Future” students is about 46%; higher than the national average and better than many other institutions in the state, but not where it needs to be. (Across the nation, approximately 25% of those who enter college complete their degree.) However, not everyone comes for a degree. Some adults, for instance, attend CAC to get one specific course needed to earn a raise on their existing job. The average age of CAC students is 28, and many work while attending college.
College Readiness
80% of the students in Pinal County who come to CAC need at least one pre-college course. Dr. Helmich and her staff are currently communicating with Pinal County K-12 Superintendents to improve this. Part of the problem is the inability of K-12 schools to attract qualified teachers due to the lack of funding for schools in Pinal County and in the State, which limits schools’ ability to pay competitive salaries.
Community colleges tend to be local – locally controlled; locally elected governing board; funded by tuitions, state appropriations (minimal), local property tax, and some federal funding. CAC has had to “really ramp up federal funding,” as the state has decreased their funding by 65% since 2007, and the budget that was just released last Friday calls for another 50% cut to CAC (one of only 3 districts in the state to be cut so harshly). “I’ll be fighting that one,” stated Helmich.
Career Path
CAC partners with K-12 school districts to create pathways from high school to college, and they work closely with the universities to be sure that students can transfer straight across from the community college to four year institutions without losing credits. They also have around 50 different certificate programs feeding students directly into the workforce.
Dual Enrollment programs allow college-ready high school students to take courses at the college that count toward both college and high school credits. Last year, due to a difference in schedules, CAC had five students who graduated from college with Associates Degrees about a week before they graduated from high school!
Dr. Helmich stated that she really appreciates the support and scholarships that Rotary provides.