Mesa college's China plan lags
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 18, 2007

School overestimates student numbers, revenues for planned online course Robert Anglen

Five months ago, Mesa Community College was supposed to start teaching 2.5 million Chinese doctors, pharmacists and nurses online in an effort to generate more than $200 million.

Today, the project is behind schedule and not a single student is enrolled.
Officials can't say when classes will begin, how many students will sign up or how much money the project will eventually bring in.

So far, it has taken three years to develop and cost about $1.6 million.
Documents and e-mails obtained by The Arizona Republic indicate student numbers and revenues were overestimated and the college does not yet have the equipment to offer the number of classes it needs to meet student projections.

But college officials remain committed to the project, saying it will lay the groundwork for the Mesa college to become an Internet educator in China, India and the Middle East. They say the contract is as important for landing future deals in China as it is for generating $200 million in revenue over five years.

"What we are focusing on is working with the Chinese to show how robust our system is," said Mesa Vice President Jerry Davis, who oversees the project.
"There are a number of good benefits."

There is no way to know how many students will enroll, Davis said, and the Chinese government has yet to provide the curriculum Mesa will put online.
But Davis is confident the project will be successful, saying it could reach millions of medical professionals within a decade. The course is to be on medical safety as part of continuing education for Chinese health care professionals.

The project is the largest ever attempted by the Maricopa district to make money in a private partnership deal. It comes on top of its $1 billion from county property taxes, tuition and the state. Chancellor Rufus Glasper and other officials have said the $200 million will be used to pay for educational projects at all 10 community college campuses.

Not everyone agrees with the project. Some state legislators say creating international programs is a distortion of the community college mission.

"I thought we needed to develop a workforce here in Arizona, not develop a workforce in China," said Sen. Linda Gray, R-Phoenix, who sits on the Senate Higher Education Committee. "It is not what our tax dollars should be going for."

The project is tied to controversies over international travel by college officials and financial irregularities at Mesa's Business and Industry Institute, which is in charge of the China project. The project has been used to justify overseas trips by college administrators.

Early this month, Larry Christiansen, president of the Mesa college, and Homero Lopez, president of Estrella Mountain Community College, were forced to resign following Republic reports documenting more than $320,000 in travel to Europe, China and other Asian countries. The district had asked both presidents to repay some travel expenses.

Pinny Sheoran, director of the business institute, has been placed on administrative leave pending a state investigation.

On Friday, district officials proposed new policies for oversight and ethics training.

In memos, proposals, contracts and media interviews, college officials have given different revenue totals for the China project tied to student enrollment. The Chinese government has given other totals. Some figures, including raising $200 million on 2.5 million students, are not mathematically possible, based on college data for the classes. For instance, if 2.5 million students did enroll in the course at the stated $56 per student, the most the college could earn is $140 million.

"Budgeting is not an exact science," said Davis, describing the different numbers as part of a negotiation process that evolved over time. "These are estimates for very big numbers."

The $200 million estimate was provided to the governing board before it voted last year to spend $2.2 million on the project and approved a contract with the Chinese Medicine Education Association.

The 10-year contract is to teach one medical course to doctors, pharmacists and nurses. The Chinese government is responsible for the curriculum. Mesa is to provide the technology and launch virtual classrooms.

Scott Olson, assistant director at the Business and Industry Institute, whose name appears on many of the revenue reports, said the project could reach as many as 5 million students. He said this was confirmed in an e-mail last month from the Chinese Medicine Ed- ucation Association director.

A copy of the Jan. 16 e-mail, obtained by The Republic, confirms the potential for millions of students, but warns the college that training 2.5 million may not be possible in five years.

"The demand of (2.5 million) doctors' training to be completed in five years should be reconsidered and it would be best not to mention it," wrote Zhao Bao, director of the Chinese Medical Education Association. He added that the college should not mention the possibility of an additional 2.5 million students.

In other e-mails, Zhao asked the college to lower its expectations by millions of students, to as little as 50,000 a year.

Neither Davis nor Olson could explain the different estimates. Both acknowledged that the contract specifies no minimum number of students. But they said the Chinese government has mandated its students attend the classes.

Another question is how many students the college can teach at one time.

College officials say existing equipment allows them to teach a maximum of 40 classes per hour. That would fall short of the minimum 163 classes per hour required to accommodate 2.5 million students over five years, according to Republic calculations based on class-size data and class time. Officials say as profits go up, they will buy equipment to offer as many as 1,000 classes per hour.

College officials say they only need to teach 28,500 students to repay the
$1.6 million spent on the project so far and start making profits.

Olson said several other projects have been discussed with the Chinese that could end up making much more than $200 million. Among those are online classes for nurses, English teachers and automotive instructors.

"Those are not dead projects," Olson said. "We are simply working at a much slower rate."