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TEMPE, Arizona — Hidden at the edge of an industrial park near the Phoenix airport, housed in a handful of utilitarian buildings with no grassy quadrangles or ivy crawling up red brick, Rio Salado Community College doesn’t look much like a typical higher-education institution.

It doesn’t act like one, either.

Rio Salado has just 23 full-time faculty, so few they fit into a ring of offices around a single common room, which helps keep its tuition comparatively low. Yet it serves more than 60,000 students, a disproportionate number of whom are low-income and attend part-time and online — characteristics other colleges have found make students tough to keep enrolled.

Thanks to a barrage of support, however, Rio Salado boasts a graduation rate four times that of comparable schools, U.S. Department of Education figures show.

There are 600 courses that start on almost any Monday of the year, for instance — not just according to a rigid academic calendar of two semesters. There’s an automated program that can predict, by the eighth day of a course, how well a student will do, triggering extra help if necessary — and a separate alert system that intervenes when faculty raise red flags, or a student fails to log into an online course, or makes an above-average number of calls to the technology help desk.

Maricopa Community College District
Samantha Hill, an adviser who helps online students at Rio Salado Community College finish their course work. (Photo: Rio Salado Community College)

There are advisers who reach out to students at various stages and see how they’re doing, whether they ask for this or not. And there’s a tracking system that makes transferring to another community college or a four-year university much, much easier than the frustrating experience it is in other states and districts.

“The college of the future,” said Chris Bustamante, Rio Salado’s president, “is going to need to be more like this.”

If higher education is moving slowly toward that future, the Maricopa Community College District, of which Rio Salado is a part, is racing at high speed.

Some of the innovations being tried by the district, which has nearly a quarter of a million credit-seeking students in all at 10 separate colleges in greater Phoenix, are controversial and unproven. And most are not unique; other community colleges and some four-year universities are nibbling at them here and there.

But few places are throwing so many reforms at the problems of higher education all at the same time.

“If we can accomplish one half, one quarter, one third of what we’re attempting to do, this will be a better institution,” said Rufus Glasper, the district’s chancellor.

Several conditions fuel Maricopa’s culture of reform. It’s a single district, centrally governed, rather than the kind of independent community college networks that exist in many other states. It’s a young institution in a fast-growing city, largely unfettered by tradition.

But the main reason it’s so feverishly trying new ideas is that it doesn’t have a choice.

Arizona has cut state funding for higher education by about 48 percent since 2008, more than any other state. The proportion of Maricopa’s $774 million-a-year budget that was underwritten by the state has dropped from 27 percent in the mid 1980s to barely 1 percent now.

That makes the district unusually dependent on local property taxes for 57 percent of its revenue, compared with 31 percent in other states that use property taxes to pay for community colleges, and on tuition for 27 percent, compared to 16 percent elsewhere. And students and taxpayers want more for their money.

“We can either sit around and accept what’s happening or take control,” said Glasper. “What we’re choosing to do is embrace it.”

That makes Maricopa a sort of early alert system itself, said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is also housed at Teachers College.)

“Colleges are relying more and more on tuition, and the more they rely on tuition, the more they’re going to have to have programs that lead somewhere,” Jenkins said. “All of that is driving more customer-responsiveness like the kind you see there. Colleges have to act more like competitive institutions.”

“The college of the future is going to need to be more like this.” Chris Bustamante, president, Rio Salado Community College, part of the Maricopa Community College District

Faculty are largely on board, a spokesman for the Maricopa Community Colleges Faculty Association says, though about 10 percent of the association’s members have quit to protest years of flat salaries, and faculty have pushed back against the district’s shift to part-time instructors — there are more than 1,500 of them at Rio Salado alone, working under those 23 full-time faculty members, and 60 percent of people teaching district-wide are part-time. (Maricopa last year promised to gradually add 300 full-time faculty members district-wide to reverse the ratio to 60 percent full-time.)

“We really view ourselves, in a positive way, as being here to serve the students,” said Steve Kadel, a geology instructor at Glendale Community College and spokesman for the faculty association. “They’re paying us, the state is paying us, the property owners are paying us. They’re not here for us, we’re here for them. That’s our overall viewpoint. The better the students do, the better we do.”

In addition to pushing up graduation rates, Maricopa is responding to its funding pressures by becoming more entrepreneurial. The online courses at Rio Salado are offered to students in 46 other states, at nearly triple the price. Like community colleges in North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas, the district has opened a freestanding corporate college to provide training services to employers — clients include Marriott, US Airways, and Walgreens —generating more than $4 million a year for itself, with hopes for much more.

A lot of what happens at Maricopa has the overtones of business. Glasper is referred to as the CEO, and is not an academic, but an administrator who began at the district as director of finance. Bustamante is a former lobbyist.

Colleges and universities “need to adapt more quickly than they ever did before, but not all of us have that in our cultures,” Bustamante said. “If they want to survive and continue to be relevant, they are going to need to be more nimble and more adaptable, and they’re going to have to serve their students rather than their institutions.”

The corporate college, for example, promises a 72-hour turnaround on proposals.

“Do you see that in traditional colleges? No,” its president, Eugene Giovannini, said. “We’re more on the front lines at community colleges. That forces us to think more like a business.

Because six in 10 arriving students need to take remedial courses in subjects they should have learned in high school — courses for which they get no credit, and whose slow pace often makes them give up — the district has accelerated that process, providing more of these classes at more locations and making them as short as eight weeks. Students are also required to check in with an adviser, since research shows that fewer than a third bother to see one when it’s optional, further reducing their chances of success.

Since students in online courses often drift without ever finishing, Rio Salado assigns them mentors who call them as soon as they enroll, around midterm and final exams, and before each semester ends. Faculty and other employees also volunteer to serve as mentors for the most at-risk students.

“We can help them before they fail. It gives them a renewed sense that someone is looking out for them,” one of these mentors, Angelique Michel, said.

“In high school, they tell you once you’re in college, it’s just you. Nobody’s going to help you. It’s sink or swim. We’re sort of changing that equation.”

One result, said Jenkins: “the best online outcomes of anyplace I’ve ever seen, by far.”

In response to obstacles its students face in transferring to other community colleges or public universities — only 12 percent of community college students nationwide who say they plan to transfer and earn bachelor’s degrees ever do, according to the Century Foundation, largely because of red tape — Maricopa standardized its paperwork, course numbers, and names of offices and departments at its 10 campuses, and teamed up with Arizona State and other public universities to streamline and vastly increase transfers. Maricopa students who successfully complete a prescribed sequence of courses, for example, are guaranteed admission to ASU.

“Everyone has a transfer agreement,” Jenkins said. “This goes far beyond that.”

And because employers complain that many bachelor’s degree holders lack basic work skills, Maricopa is one of 27 community colleges, universities, and systems nationwide using money from a federal grant to train them for specific occupations.

“I love to learn, and that was my primary motivation. It still is,” David Alkema, 23, who has bachelor’s degrees in physiology and molecular cellular biology and plant sciences, but is now enrolled at Maricopa’s Estrella Mountain Community College to become a nuclear power-plant operator, said in a high-tech classroom in a low-rise building on a corner of the campus. “But here you also know that there’s a job at the end.”

A lot of what is happening at Maricopa also is a response to competition from private, for-profit colleges and universities, which many other traditional higher-education institutions dismiss, but which offer greater convenience for students, and are siphoning some away.

“They’re nipping at our heels,” Bustamante said. “Students have more choices than they’ve every had. What edge are you going to have in this incredibly competitive market?”

That’s one reason Rio Salado now starts its courses on any given Monday, an idea some faculty at other colleges resist because it requires all of them to sign on to teach a single master course with little variation. Students can also opt for speeded-up semesters, as they can at the University of Phoenix and other for-profits.

Faculty view the business orientation with some skepticism, said Kadel. But they also recognize that, as no less of an authority than the American Association of Community Colleges put it, “As they currently function, community colleges are not up to the task before them,” and need to change.

There are two ways to respond to that, Kadel said. “One way is to stamp our feet and say, ‘No no no, we won’t do it.’ The oldest-guard faculty still feel that way. Or we can say, ‘Okay, here’s the change we see coming. Here’s what we’re being told they want us to do. How can we be involved so that we’re driving the changes instead of responding to them?”

Not everything at Maricopa has gone smoothly. There have been disputes among members of the governing board, a costly data-security breach, controversy over offering in-state tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants, and allegations of fraud involving a federal grant to one of the Maricopa colleges.

And pushing so many reforms remains an uphill climb, said Glasper.

“What I’ve been telling folks is that these will be uncomfortable times,” the chancellor said. “But not so they will be discouraged by it, but to be encouraged by being part of an organization willing to take risks.”

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