March 31, 2005
With growing bipartisan support, state lawmakers soon could adopt some of the most sweeping changes for Arizona higher education in more than 30 years.
The proposal would establish new state funding rules for universities and community colleges, while granting some community colleges the right to offer four-year degrees for the first time in Arizona history and creating a fourth public university.
Champions say the plan would boost education in critical areas such as nursing, teaching and public safety jobs. But public and private universities argue the bill could create unanticipated costs for taxpayers at the state and local level.
The proposal, crafted by Rep. Laura Knaperek, RTempe, has elevated an ongoing battle between universities and community colleges over several issues including who should be able to offer four-year degrees. The outcome will involve hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding and student tuition as Arizona’s population keeps growing and more out-of-state students seek degrees here.
The Arizona Board of Regents, charged by the state constitution to oversee university education, has urged lawmakers to delay any action until the board finishes its own research on possible reforms. The board is expected to consider recommendations from a special committee this summer.
Knaperek said her plan doesn’t have to wait for the regents. She describes it as a fundamental shift in approach to state support of higher education that would open more doors for high school graduates. The complex proposal, as outlined in SB2709, creates a system where tax dollars follow students instead of responding to political pressures, she said.
"We actually will be working on economic development for our state and our counties, as we try to allow folks access to higher education," Knaperek said. "We need to make sure people have the ability to be as successful as they want to be, without having to move to Maricopa County."
In response to questions raised by some lawmakers, Knaperek has agreed to delay implementation of the proposal until the fall of 2006 and to create a special legislative committee that would study possible impacts later this year.
SB2709 would make several major changes, such as transforming Eastern Arizona College in Safford into a new university. But the issue of four-year degrees has been a lightning rod invoking strong opposition from both public and private universities.
Up to 13 other states have experimented with four-year degrees for community colleges.
But those schools must clear some high barriers to get their programs approved, significantly limiting the number of degrees offered, said Don Isaacson, a lobbyist for the University of Phoenix, a national private institution.
"This is the single largest grant of authority to community colleges in the country in one fell swoop," Isaacson said.
Linda Thor, president of Rio Salado College in Tempe, said the proposal recognizes more students are selecting community colleges because of lower tuition costs and more locations around the state.
State figures show nearly 116,000 full-time students were enrolled in the 10 community colleges last year, compared with 104,685 students in the three university systems this year.
Many Republican lawmakers and a large number of Democrats said they are worried about recent tuition increases at all three universities.
"I want to send a message to the universities," said Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert. "If they want to continue those huge increases . . . this Legislature will find other means such as this (bill) to provide those degrees at a less expensive rate."
Gov. Janet Napolitano hasn’t taken a public position on SB2709. But she is generally viewed as more supportive of the universities, so opponents are hopeful she would veto the bill.
Fundamental shift in Arizona higher education
Key elements of the strike-everything amendment to SB2709, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate:
State university funding: An informal formula of one instructor for every 22 students would be set into state law. Supporters say this would increase the likelihood of lawmakers funding university growth, although the Legislature has waived other funding formulas in the past.
Community college funding: State aid would be tied to a community college district’s property tax base, instead of to state funding for kindergarten through 12th grade districts.
Four-year degrees: Up to 12 community colleges, including five in Maricopa County and one in Pinal County, would be allowed to offer four-year degrees for nursing, teaching, police and fire sciences, as well as other occupations not currently offered by state universities.
Eastern Arizona College: This community college in Thatcher would be elevated to Arizona’s fourth state university.
Private university scholarships: $5 million would be set aside to provide
scholarships for private colleges and vocational programs.