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Rio Salado College, a mostly online community college in Maricopa County, Ariz., is one of the first community colleges to launch a “national division” targeting students all over the country to take online classes and earn degrees or certificates. Administrators say the division, which debuted last fall, targets “education deserts” where postsecondary programs can be hard to access.

"This only adds to what we're doing locally in Maricopa and how we support Maricopa residents in the state of Arizona in providing a flexible delivery model for students," said Janelle Elias, interim vice president of Rio National.

The college defines an education desert as an area more than an hour’s commute from "a main campus" of a college or university, which is also how some others have chosen to define it. Some researchers also specify that that campus must be broadly accessible, meaning highly selective colleges may still be present in an education desert. Rio Salado administrators say they have identified education deserts in every state, but they did not specify how many they have found, emphasizing that they are still in the early stages of the national division.

The courses are priced at $250 per credit hour, up from Rio’s standard $85 for Maricopa residents, and are available 24 hours a day to ease student access. The launch was the result of a $5 million investment by the college’s governing board and a planning grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The division currently has 600 available courses and 1,000 students. As for the success of the program so far, administrators said they saw a 12.2 percent increase in credits attempted for the spring of 2019 and are continuing to see some increases in year-over-year out-of-state enrollment for fall 2019. Out-of-state enrollment has hovered around 5 to 6 percent of Rio Salado's total in the past five years.

“We do believe these increases are early indicators of success with the national division, yet we have many strategic efforts under way at the college to improve student success and experience,” administrators wrote in a statement. They did not identify a specific number of students from education deserts that they would like to enroll.

Nicholas Hillman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has done research on education deserts, said that generally online education can still be difficult for potential students in those areas.

“Online-only seems to be suboptimal for students that are working full-time and who are not already in the academic groove,” said Hillman, who concedes he is not an expert on online learning. “My understanding is that when online is coupled with robust support services and robust accesses to face-to-face contact and the relationships are built between faculty and students, that’s when you see students really thrive and student outcomes really improve. And I just haven't yet seen it in online education.”

Some research suggests that the students who are least prepared for college perform worse in online courses than they do traditional ones.

Kate Smith, interim president at Rio Salado, said the college's history of distance education makes it uniquely designed for this purpose and better attuned to the needs of students. The college was founded just over 40 years ago as a "college without walls."

"The history of Rio has always been to take education where it’s needed," said Smith. "It started at storefronts, by mailing tapes back and forth, correspondence, and then we've gotten into serving in prisons."

Elias echoed the sentiment, saying that Rio Salado is better primed to take on the task than more traditional institutions are.

"Because we were designed this way in our core fundamental mission," she said, "we've designed our processes, everything to be very elastic, and that allows us a flexibility that's difficult to replicate in a more traditional college or university setting."

The college uses a chat bot, success coaches and text messaging to engage out-of-state students.

Vanessa Whaley, a portfolio executive at CampusWorks, which supported Rio Salado in the launch of its national division, said that the college understood that robust digital marketing would be necessary to reach these potential students. “The price point is a really big opportunity for students who don't have access to education,” she said. “Now they get access from someone who's been in the field for so long.”

Phil Hill, a partner at MindWires Consulting who has vocally criticized Rio Salado’s student outcomes in the past, said he questions whether the Rio Salado model is good enough to scale and will really help students in these areas.

“It’s playing to their weaknesses, not their strengths,” he said. “Their strength is being a transfer school and a course filler for [Arizona State University] and some of the other universities. They just have not demonstrated with their approach that they can have high success rates or support their students who are trying to get degrees.” Rio Salado officials in the past have pushed back against Hill's critiques, noting that fewer than a quarter of its students enroll seeking any kind of degree or certificate.

Hill also said that the price of courses might still make them inaccessible to many students in education deserts, who might be better served by online options at their local community colleges.

A further challenge that might face any institution attempting to engage students in education deserts might be internet access. Rio Salado officials also said they are beginning to take a close look at whether areas that lack high-speed broadband may be part of their definition of education deserts.

According to Kristin Blagg, a researcher with the Urban Institute who has worked on the topic, about 7 percent of people who live in education deserts also do not have reliable internet access that is fast enough to partake in online classes. Outside of education deserts, that number is 1 percent.

“We calculated that three million folks live in places that are in this definition of a public, broad-access education desert and who also don't have a high-speed internet connection,” Blagg said. “It’s a relatively small share of the population if you think about the population of the country, but it is a substantial population.”

Smith and Elias both say that, in addition to their goal of making high-quality education accessible, they believe the division can serve the Maricopa community.

“This division of the college does have that unique opportunity to function as an innovation hub or as an incubator,” said Elias. “We're already seeing some early technology successes that we plan to scale back to the full college and potentially could support the full district as well.”

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