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By Pamela Burdman
Tempe, Arizona
f the six-story cement-and-mirrors edifice doesn’t
resemble the typical college campus, the interior looks even
less like an ivory tower.
In the hallways, inspirational posters extol virtues like
“Teamwork,” “Vision,” “Success” and “Excellence.” Offices buzz
with talk of marketing to clients, selling products and winning
new accounts.
Students are few and far between—most take courses via
the Internet or at nearby corporations—but FTSE (Full-Time
Student Equivalent, or “footsie”) is part of every conversation.
Exact enrollment is a moving target, because classes begin
every two weeks.
Welcome to Rio Salado College, the renegade institution
that eschews the trappings of the typical college. Rio’s refusal to
bow to academic norms and traditions—rejecting everything
from the classroomwall to the academic calendar—has won it
a reputation as both outcast and innovator.
The dual roles have been with Rio since its founding as
the “college without walls” for the Maricopa Community
College District in 1978, well before the advent of the Internet
added luster to the idea of distance learning. Envisioned to
serve working adults and those who could not reach existing
campuses, Rio has tried every formof delivery from radio and
newspaper to correspondence and CD-ROM.
That those experiments were not always successful—
newspaper classes, for
example, flopped—has
not enhanced Rio’s
reputation locally. And
Rio’s habit of reducing
instructional costs
through accelerated
programs and heavy
reliance on part-time
instructors has not
won favor with area
Still, Rio hasn’t
stopped growing for
most of its 23-year
life, and flexibility and
adaptability have been key: Not only do classes start every
other week, the distance learning format means that classes are
never full and are never cancelled.
Today Rio ranks third in size among the ten colleges in the
Maricopa district, the second largest district in the country. In
1999–2000, the school enrolledmore than 26,000 students in
for-credit courses, for a total FTSE of 8,457. The average age of
students is 32.
Spring 2001
Daring to be Different
Rio Salado College has won a reputation as both outcast and innovator
If anything, daring to
be different has raised Rio’s
profile outside Arizona’s
borders—to the point that
raised eyebrows only seem
to encourage the folks who
run the place.
“It’s music to our ears
when someone says, ‘You
can’t do that,’” LindaThor,
Rio Salado’s president since
1990, said with a laugh.
The laugh underscores
Thor’s conviction that she
will prove her critics wrong.
“We’re always under the
microscope,” she said. “Our
level of accuracy has to be
Thor then proudly
ticked off examples of
accomplishments that
others didn’t think possible:
• classes that start 26
times a year;
• a “dual enrollment”
program that allows
high school seniors to take college classes at the high
school site;
• an accelerated dental hygiene program that takes 15
months instead of the usual two years—and has only one
full-time instructor;
• one of the most lopsided ratios of part-time to full-time
instructors in all of academe;
• online laboratory science classes; and
• a law enforcement certificate that awards 35 units of credit
for graduates of the Phoenix Police Academy’s 16-week
That these innovations have contributed to a six-year
stretch of 15 percent annual enrollment growth has helped to
vindicate Rio’s model.
Take dental hygiene for example: Skepticism about the
quality of the accelerated programwas quickly dispelled after
the first class achieved a 100 percent pass rate on their board
examinations. Rio was catapulted to the top ten percent of
hygiene programs nationwide, despite being the only 15-
month program and the only one with a single full-time
faculty member, according to JimVan Dyke, dean of applied
programs at Rio.
A statewide shortage of dentists made hygiene a priority.
The Arizona Dental Association and the Delta Dental
Rio Salado College
refuses to bow to
academic norms
and traditions—
rejecting everything
from the classroom
wall to the
academic calendar.
Photos by John Phillips, Black Star, for CrossTalk
Vernon Smith is president of the Rio Salado faculty,
which includes 21 full-time instructors and 600 part-