The West Valley is approaching a surge of growth and an evolving job market. Estrella Mountain Community College is getting ready for it.
“I think what you’re beginning to see is this kind of renaissance of these industries that are bringing in high-paying jobs that require specialized training. So, when you combine all of these elements together along with our population growth, you know, it’s exciting and also I pause,” said EMCC president Dr. Rey Rivera, noting that the school’s projection is it will likely double its current enrollment of 10,000 student, “because… if we’re doubling that capacity with our current facilities, it certainly may provide some challenges.”
EMCC just crossed the 10,000-student mark this semester, but more growth is to come. Mr. Rivera, who took over as president in July, said he anticipates his school will be one of the larger schools in the Maricopa County Community College District within the next 10-20 years. Right now, its about half the size of the district’s largest schools.
EMCC can boast a nomination from the Aspen Institute for an Aspen Award, which indicates the nonprofit thinks its one of the top 150 community colleges in the country. It was one of seven MCCCD schools to be nominated and is EMCC’s sixth nomination.
Recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau showed Phoenix as the nation’s fastest-growing city by volume and Buckeye as the nation’s fastest-growing city by percentage change. Other West Valley cities aren’t far behind. Most of the Valley’s projected growth in the next few decades is expected to come on the west side.
“We’re kind of in the epicenter of growth in the Valley,” Mr. Rivera said.
With West Valley population growth comes EMCC student growth, and with EMCC student growth, campus growth is needed.
The college will break ground on a new 30,000-square-foot building, Arroyo Hall, in January and has plans to open a few other classrooms over the next few years.
EMCC recently opened a new biology lab, in a repurposed classroom, to help accommodate its recent growth.
“We really needed the lab space, our labs are always booked,” said Life Sciences professor Dr. Jarod Raithel in a news release.
Mr. Rivera says the college will still be at capacity when Arroyo Hall and other new classrooms open over the next few years.
More growth is needed. Mr. Rivera said after the next three to five years, EMCC needs to add new facilities to stay competitive. They’ll need money for those facilities, which will lie in the hands of the MCCCD governing board, which has the sole power to create bond initiatives to put on the ballot. Because that process takes at least a year, Mr. Rivera said it will be two years minimum before the college will need start action on a bond.
He hopes the West Valley’s growth and EMCC’s role in filling a changing workforce will be enough to justify a bond initiative to the governing board.
“We’re hopeful that with all the new growth that we have here and the projection in terms of our workforce, partnerships that we have with our cities and industries here, we’re hopeful that that will be the justification that we can utilize to say, ‘Look, if we’re going to be competitive with the other higher educational institutions in the West Valley, and even some of the career technical education districts, we need to have new facilities to maintain a competitive edge,’” Mr. Rivera said.
Mr. Rivera pointed to companies investing in new facilities in the Southwest Valley. Microsoft is building two data centers in Goodyear and one in El Mirage. Nike is building a distribution center in Goodyear, and many other companies are building distribution warehouses in and around the Southwest Valley.
More and more these facilities, Mr. Rivera noted, are turning to machines to perform repetitive tasks performed by blue-collar workers in the past. Instead, the workforce needs people who can manage and maintain those machines and IT workers to help manage data.
“The question is, ‘How do we engage with that future workforce?’”
One way EMCC is adapting, is through its cyber security program. It was designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.
“I literally Google searched ‘Best cyber security schools in Arizona’ and Estrella Mountain popped up near the top of the list,” said former EMCC student Brian Farrell in a news release. “I did my due diligence researching Estrella versus other schools. It is the only two-year school accredited by the National Security Agency.” Glendale Community College has since become the second MCCCD school to earn the accreditation.
Mr. Farrell worked in computer services, went back to school in his 40s to boost his resume and is now working for Cisco after completing the company’s rigorous certification program.
Mr. Rivera, who has worked at EMCC for nearly two decades, laid out three goals for the college when he took the reins as president. He wants every action the college takes to contribute in some way to one of the three goals.
The first is to increase the school’s graduation rate from 21% to 30%. The second is to keep the college accessible to students. The third is to make EMCC a great place to work.
“We know that if we take care of our employees and they love working here and they’re happy here, we know that that will translate in terms of how they work with our students to provide them the best services and learning possible here at the college,” Mr. Rivera said.
The national average for community colleges graduation rate is about 24%. Part of the reason for that low number is when students transfer to a four-year university without completing an associate degree first, it counts as a student not graduating. MCCCD’s reverse transfer degrees hope to combat this effect. It will allow students that move on from an MCCCD school to use the credits they earn at their university to apply to and complete their associate degree.
Mr. Rivera wants his college to be accessible to all who want to attend. One way he plans to accomplish this is to partner with K-12 school districts, to ensure that students see EMCC as a way to earn a job that pays a living wage.
“Anything we can do to enhance and provide them a pathway out of poverty, that’s something that we want to pursue,” Mr. Rivera said.
EMCC’s student population is 57% Hispanic, 26% white, 7% black, 3% Asian, 1% Native American and 3% of students with two or more ethnicities.
Mr. Rivera wants his community college to be part of the community.
“We’re not an island in the West Valley,” he said.
EMCC partners with state universities, municipalities, school districts and local business groups. Mr. Rivera is on the board of both the Southwest Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Western Maricopa Coalition’s (WESTMARC).
One of EMCC’s biggest partnerships with a state university is the Maricopa to ASU Pathways, or MAP program. This allows any student that completes his or her associate degree at an MCCCD college to transfer those credits toward a bachelor’s degree in the same “pathway” at Arizona State University.
A new community partnership is through a recently-hired business department faculty member named Mike Pineda. In addition to teaching, on of Mr. Pineda’s role will be to help community members create new small businesses.