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“At traditional colleges, they build it and hope somebody
comes. We essentially say, ‘If you buy it, we’ll build it,’” said Jim
Van Dyke.
Rio looks for accounts of 50 FTSE and larger, said Karen
Stigers, director of corporate and government programs.
Otherwise, she said, “It isn’t a win scenario for us, and it isn’t a
win scenario for them.”
Van Dyke, who says he joined Rio Salado 12 years ago as
the college’s first “salesperson” and went on to sign up the first
“client,” AmericaWest Airlines, is unashamed of using sales
terminology.
“It’s a very noble thing,” he said. “These are the people
whomake us grow. A student is a serf; a customer is a whole
different kind of thinking.”
The business lingo isn’t limited to the school’s external
relationships, as attested to by a license plate on the wall outside
Thor’s office. “RIOTQM” reads the plate, alluding to Rio’s
focus on Total QualityManagement, a business philosophy
devoted to perpetual improvement of an organization.
And, while most colleges never mention customer service,
Rio administrators decided two years ago that mere service
wasn’t enough. They hired a consultant to work on “customer
astonishment.”
Rio’s entrepreneurial spirit and reliance on business models
invite comparisons to the for-profit institution just across the
freeway. Inmany ways, Rio has more in common with the
University of Phoenix than it does with its sister community
colleges.
Both are geared for working adults and have significant
online enrollment. And both have national ambitions.
“They’re a competitor in some respects and a partner
in others,” said PamFelkins, director of operations for the
Phoenix campus of the University of Phoenix. “They’re an
institution that’s on the edge. They’re willing to go out and
explore things that the other community colleges either haven’t
been given the blessing to do or haven’t wanted to.”
Rio Salado’s public school price tag of just $41 a credit hour
for in-state students is highly competitive at the lower-division
level. As a result, many students transfer to the university for
their upper-division work.
“If anybody asks me where to go to get their (lower-
division) courses, I always recommend Rio Salado. It’s more
like the type of learning environment they will get here,” said
Felkins.
With an annual online enrollment of roughly 10,000
students and growing, Rio Salado is a national leader in online
instruction, particularly among community colleges. More
than 1,000 of the online students live outside Arizona. Of its
300 distance learning courses, 200 are available on the Internet.
While today most colleges offer Internet courses, Rio’s
distance learning missionmeant that it jumped in earlier
thanmost. In 1996, Thor put the college’s 17 full-time faculty
members through “Internet boot camp,” and then asked each
to develop an online course for the fall.
Once known for hundreds of classroom sites dotted
around the county in shopping centers and public buildings,
Rio has shrunk back to just seven locations, even as out-of-
state enrollment grows.
A vehicle for growth is Anatomy and Physiology, a
course using a customized
commercial CD-ROMwith
on-screen dissections and
lab practicals. Rio officials
love to use the course for
demonstrations and student
testimonials.
Rio certainly has not
escaped criticism for having
the guts to do science labs
online, but John Arle, faculty
chair for the sciences, has a
ready retort: “Are you still
using a cat?” he quipped,
referring to the standard
practice for lab dissections.
“I’ve replaced a cat in a tray
with a human on a screen.
At least it’s the right species.”
That combination has
worked for student Matt
Zimmerman, a Florida
psychotherapist. “Not only
can you do dissection, but it
gives you computer graphics
of anatomical structures,”
said Zimmerman. “It can
rotate them, and do all sorts
of things you can’t do in an actual lab.”
To teach such courses, Rio relies almost exclusively on
part-time faculty—another feature it shares with the new for-
profit institutions. Adjuncts are particularly common at virtual
universities, where instruction is labor intensive.
“It’s the emerging model for online institutions,” said
Sally Johnstone, director of the Colorado-basedWestern
Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications.
“If you bring in someone at an assistant professor level…
you just won’t generate enoughmoney
to cover that salary,” noted Jerry Ice,
president of the International Center for
Distance Learning and provost atThomas
Edison State College, a New Jersey
distance institution that employs no full-
time professors.
Though the use of part-timers is
rising everywhere, Rio has taken the
principle further thanmost. This year, the
school employs 600 adjunct instructors
and just 21 full-time instructors. The
full-timers teach very few courses,
instead serving as department chairs—
supervising part-timers and overseeing
academic programs.
Since its founding, Rio Salado
intended to have a small number of full-
time faculty. That enables the college to keep costs down, and
keeps it nimble.
“If you have a large group of full-time faculty, you can’t
move as fast,” said Dean of Instruction Carol Scarafiotti. “With
Jim Van Dyke, dean of applied programs at Rio
Salado, believes students should be treated like
“customers,” not “serfs.”
While most colleges
never mention
customer service, Rio
administrators decided
that mere service
wasn’t enough. They
hired a consultant to
work on “customer
astonishment.”