By Kyler Van Vliet
Catherine Ripley has spent her life traversing the world working as a U.S. diplomat, counter-terrorism strategist, professor and – for a few months – as a bassist. This January, Ripley started her new career as a member of the Pima Community College Board of Governors, representing District 1 in Arizona.
She won the general election last November in 2020 against Ethan Orr with a campaign focused on increasing enrollment through formal partnerships with local High Schools, the JTED Program and the Earn to Learn Programs.
Like most universities and colleges, Pima’s enrollment rate is down. According to The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment declined 2.5% at the end of 2020 due to COVID and the economic struggles brought along with it. Higher education has lost about 400,000 students since the 2019-2020 school year.
Despite this, Ripley is very hopeful for what the future holds.
“History has shown us that typically after every economic lull, enrollment increases as people have the financial support to pursue their education,” she said.
Ripley believes that Pima Community College’s success is crucial for the growth of the local community as a whole.
“Pima Community College is the lynch-pin to Tucson’s economic growth and bounce back. PCC brings community together; education makes Pima County stronger.”
Ripley has high hopes not just for the college, but for the community.
With a background as a Naval Officer of 26 years, a U.S. diplomat serving in Africa and in The Hague, Netherlands and as a counterterrorism expert in the U.S. Special Operations Command in the Pacific during the height of the War on Terror, Ripley said she knows how to work well with people who hold diverse opinions, as well as across levels of bureaucracy and governments.
Ripley was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota but has grown familiar with the Tucson community throughout her 12 years living and working here.
She said her employment at Raytheon and as the executive director for the Pima County Democratic Party deepened her knowledge of our community.
Ripley said she has a good understanding of the education system due to her work as an assistant professor at some of the country’s most prestigious universities like M.I.T, Boston College and Harvard. Since 2016, she has taught political science as an adjunct professor at PCC.
Ripley has only been in office for a little over two months now. She says not much has changed in her time in office and was adamant that any recent acts before her hiring, such as the $9,989,049 requested and accumulated for the Cares Act, are achievements of her colleagues.
Ripley hopes that during her time as District 1 Representative, she can accomplish her goals of lowering the tuition rate or even eliminating the cost of tuition.
“Hopefully with the possible rise in enrollment in the near future, tuition cost can be reduced,” she said. “But I hold the belief we can eliminate the costs of tuition as a whole. We have seen states like New York and Minnesota who offer free community college make it work.”
Ripley also wants to see PCC offer four-year degree programs, especially for careers with high workforce demand such as health care, applied technology and education.
The Arizona House passed HOUSE BILL 2523 which would allow just that this February. The bill awaits its official outcome in the Senate vote.
This is not the first time a bill like this has been introduced, but Ripley feels confident that the state sees this as a prime opportunity to educate a broader group of people for high demand jobs that would boost the economy.