SIGNAL PEAK — If you unbill it, they will come.

The decision by Central Arizona College to offer free tuition to in-county residents has led to a marked increase in enrollment numbers, according to college President Jackie Elliott.

Speaking at the CAC board meeting on Tuesday, Elliott said that applications and enrollments were coming in so quickly that staff was working overtime to process them, including Elliott herself.

“Many in this room who don’t normally process these have chipped in,” Elliott said. “We are very appreciative of the true team effort here at Central Arizona College.”

Elliott also announced that the college had erased $1.4 million in student debt and removed holds on accounts, allowing students to reenroll with a “clean slate.”

According to Elliott, the enrollment numbers had decreased by around 30% during the pandemic, but that because of the recent initiatives, CAC could expect enrollment to be at or near 2019 levels.

The free tuition and debt erasure was made possible due to $11.9 million in funding the college received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

While the enrollment numbers trended upward, Mary Kay Gilliland, vice president of academic affairs, cited statistics the college wants to improve upon during her monitoring report.

Gilliland said CAC still lags behind expectations in three key indicators: retention rates, course completion and graduation rates.

“The past year and a half has brought a lot of challenges for us,” Gilliland said, “but we are going to be moving forward and try to achieve our lofty goals.”

In addition to the aforementioned changes, two smaller adjustments designed to retain students include offering a full refund during the drop/add week if students change courses, and rewarding students with a $100 scholarship for books.

“I have to think our free tuition has dramatically added to what we will be able to achieve,” Gilliland said. “We’ve been adding classes daily. Students are able to come back, be debt free, and it’s truly a new start.

Gilliland also mentioned that with federal CARES Act money, faculty were able to participate in the Open Educational Resource Initiative, adopting or writing new material that they could use in their courses for free.

The fall semester begins on Aug. 23.

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CAC student success outcomes and goals

Current CAC statistics for key indicators for student success, including statewide averages and board-mandated targets for the college. 

Category CAC totals Statewide totals National average CAC target
Student retention rate 73 percent 77 percent 54 percent 77 percent
Student graduation rate 24 percent 35 percent 23 percent >50 percent
Student course completion rate 68 percent 79 percent NA 85 percent

Aaron Dorman is the Casa Grande reporter at PinalCentral, covering government, schools, business and more. He can be reached at adorman@pinalcentral.com.