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I have a general ethic of not criticizing other community colleges. We’re all fighting many of the same battles, and we endure enough disrespect without piling on each other.

That said, I’m a little perplexed by Rio Salado College’s plan to “target” “education deserts” around the country.

As outlined in Inside Higher Ed, the plan seems to be to market Rio Salado’s online courses to students in places around the country where the students don’t have reasonable access to an open-admissions institution. The stated point is access, though I have to assume that tuition revenue is a significant motivator, as well. The sticker price is $250 per credit, which is uncommonly high for a community college. (Despite being in a much more expensive part of the country, for instance, Brookdale charges $184, including fees.) Apparently, Rio Salado got a Gates Foundation grant to help get its “national” program up and running.


Rio Salado has one of the highest adjunct percentages in the industry, and according to the College Scorecard, its graduation rate is in the single digits. (Some of us suspect a connection between those two facts.) It isn’t particularly well-known outside of Arizona, and it’s competing with community colleges across the country with lower prices, higher grad rates and the option of dropping by for in-person help.

To be fair, Arizona has been especially rough on its community colleges, particularly in the Pima and Maricopa systems (of which Rio Salado is a part). I can’t blame Rio Salado for trying to market its way to solvency. It’s playing the hand it was dealt, and I have to agree that the hand it was dealt was brutal.

But from a broader systemic perspective, I’m having a hard time seeing what problem this solves.

Most community colleges are built around access. Most have online courses and degrees, along with counseling, advising, financial aid and a host of student services. Yes, there are spots in the country in which physical access to a campus is difficult, but those are often the same spots that have spotty or nonexistent broadband.

The internet being what it is, it’s not unusual for students in one part of the country (or the world) to take online classes offered someplace else. For example, we have online students in France, India and Vietnam, none of which is part of Monmouth County. We also have online students in most states around the country. That’s commonplace. Rio Salado is far from the first community college to offer online courses beyond the borders of its service area. Most of us have been doing that for years, if not decades.

From what I can see, the elements of Rio Salado’s program that are new don’t make sense, and the parts that make sense aren’t new. I mean, congrats on the Gates grant, but I’m at a loss.

Wise and worldly readers, am I missing a key variable? Is there something here that makes the program make more sense than it does at first blush? I can’t blame them for trying to make up lost revenue, but if that’s all it is, well, we can do better.

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