New Z Degree program allows students to earn degree with no textbook costs

Dr. Annalisa Alvrus and Laura BallardDr. Annalisa Alvrus and Laura Ballard MESA, Arizona – April 23, 2019 – Mesa Community College offers a new Arizona General Education Curriculum (AGEC) Z Degree, providing an opportunity for students to earn an associate’s degree without ever having to step foot inside a classroom or purchase a textbook.

The MCC Z Degree, or zero textbook cost degree, embraces online education and provides a lower-cost alternative to MCC students. Numerous studies indicate when students decide to attend college and select a major, the decision is mostly based upon the costs, attendance and instructional materials. MCC Z Degree students can save up to an estimated $8,332, or 62 percent, over the cost of a traditional associate degree program.

Add in commuting savings to and from the college campus and potential child care costs and savings increase even more.

“It’s important that we focus our efforts on the most important things students care about and the cost of earning a degree is a major factor,” says Laura Ballard, MCC director of eLearning. “We’re giving our students what they deserve.”

Classes in the Z Degree program use open educational resources (OER), streaming media, library databases and faculty-developed content. Instructors work closely with the MCC Center for Teaching & Learning team to develop the content for each Z Course offered.

“The entire process creates a learning and professional development experience for teachers too,” says Ballard. “Converting classes to an online, no textbook class provides opportunities to think outside the box, and possibly the instructor’s comfort zone, to create enhanced learning experiences for students.”

Dr. Annalisa Alvrus, chair of the MCC Cultural Science Department, is experienced in teaching online classes. She accepted the challenge of compressing her Bones, Stones and Human Evolution: Intro to Biological Anthropology class from a traditional 16-week, in-person class to an 8-week Z Course and converting a lab to online.

“The course has labs and toward the end of the semester students utilize bone casts. Those were harder to convert, but I found external websites with 3-D rotational photos so the students could get a similar experience to holding a cast of a skull.”

The MCC Z Degree program is funded by the eLearning Department and inspired by the Maricopa Millions initiative, a grant established in 2013 by Maricopa Community Colleges to support use of OERs, which are intended to reduce educational costs for students while providing immediate and permanent access to learning resources. The Maricopa Millions project has saved students more than $11.5 million in its first five years, while MCC's Z Degree has saved students half-a-million dollars in its first three semesters.

MCC Z Courses and Z Degree program are funded with MCC online student tuition dollars, according to Ballard. “We see it as a reinvestment in our online students because we know that faculty engagement and usage of OER in online classes shows an improvement in students’ success. In fact, our preliminary data shows that the first semester of Z Degree classes in Fall 2018 had a 6 percent increase in student success compared to non-Z Degree online classes.”

The Z Degree also provides students greater flexibility, allowing them to take classes fitting their schedule. While classes still have weekly due dates, work may be completed when it’s convenient for the student. Studies show a 6-10 percent increase in learning retention when classes are conducted online.

“It’s definitely stretched me as an instructor and has made me think outside the box and approach my course content with fresh eyes,” says Alvrus. “I want to make the information as clear as possible and easy to navigate since I’m not in the classroom with the students and can’t see if someone isn’t ‘getting it’. For my Z Courses, I make sure to look at student assessments as quickly as possible and provide timely feedback before they move on to the next section.”

MCC began offering Z Courses in Fall 2018 with classes such as Computer Information Systems, Geographic Information Systems, Biology, Math, Archaeology and English, all which were already taught online. Though the AGEC is MCC’s first Z Degree, the college offers 20 Z Courses. Students in a Z Degree program are expected to take two Z Courses per eight-week semester, allowing them to earn their associate’s degree in 18 months.

“The demand for online only education is growing,” says Alvrus. “I felt like converting some of my courses to Z Courses was a good direction to take as long as it was done correctly with the student learning process kept at forefront and that’s what we’ve done.”

In addition to converting more classes to Z Courses, MCC plans to roll out a second Z Degree. An Associates in Business Administration is expected Fall 2019, along with an additional six Z Courses per semester through Spring 2020.

“We want to continue to grow and share our Z Degree program,” says Ballard. “It benefits everyone; our faculty, our students and our community as a whole.”

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Media Contact: Dawn Zimmer,, 480-461-7892

Mesa Community College is nationally recognized as an Aspen Prize Top 150 U.S. Community College and is known for service learning, career and technical programs, civic engagement and innovative approaches to education. The college serves as a resource for career readiness, transfer education, workforce development and lifelong learning. Host to more than 30,000 students annually, MCC offers degree and certificate programs online, at its two campuses, the Mesa Downtown Center and additional locations. Through the implementation of Guided Pathways with Integrated Support Services, MCC is transforming ways it champions student success; college completion, university transfer and career attainment for all students. MCC is a Hispanic Serving Institution. The diverse student body includes more than 400 international students representing over 60 countries. Award-winning faculty are dedicated to student success, providing the education and training to empower MCC students to compete locally and globally. Located in the East Valley of Phoenix, Arizona, MCC is one of the 10 colleges in the Maricopa County Community College District. Learn more at

Mesa Community College is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

The Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) is an EEO/AA institution and an equal opportunity employer of protected veterans and individuals with disabilities. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or national origin. A lack of English language skills will not be a barrier to admission and participation in the career and technical education programs of the District. MCCCD does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability or age in its programs or activities. For Title IX/504 concerns, call the following number to reach the appointed coordinator: (480) 731-8499. For additional information, as well as a listing of all coordinators within the Maricopa College system, visit

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Publication Date: 
Tuesday, April 23, 2019