A key state lawmaker slammed a proposal to expand the state’s university system, saying Monday that it was a move to undermine efforts to offer four-year degrees at community colleges.
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, had proposed earlier this year that community colleges offer four-year degrees in critical areas such as nursing and education.
The Arizona Board of Regents and the universities rejected the proposal outright, saying it would overwhelm the community college system. Over the weekend, Chris Herstam, president of the Board of Regents, unveiled a proposal to expand the state’s public university system by adding two regional universities that, along with Northern Arizona University, would focus on undergraduate education.
“They’re trying to split the baby, and it has potential to do some serious damage,” said Pearce, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “They’ve set out to create their own system to be the big boys on the block. This is all about them rather than what’s good for the taxpayer.” An analyst with the Goldwater Institute agreed.
“When community colleges were involved that was a bad idea, but now that it is (Board of Regents-governed) it’s a great idea,” said education analyst Vicki Murray. “It seems, on its face, is this just a question of who gets a bigger slice of the budget pie?”
Herstam said his plan has more to do with tackling enrollment growth, which is projected to increase 48 percent to 170,000 students in 15 years, while increasing access and affordability. “The (university) system will collapse by the year 2020 if you don’t change it,” Herstam said. “We will not be able to produce enough college graduates for our state to function successfully in a knowledge-based global economy, and that would be disastrous for Arizona’s economy.”
Under Herstam’s plan, which was developed with the three public university presidents, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona would remain research institutions. Northern Arizona University, along with two new regional universities, would focus on undergraduate and master’s-level programs.
The ASU West campus would become Central Arizona University, while UA South in Sierra Vista would merge with NAU — Yuma to become Southern Arizona University. Pearce said community colleges already offer the benefits of Herstam’s plan: Smaller classes and lower tuition.
“People can eat, sleep and get an affordable education in their communities while taxpayers save money,” Pearce said. Other lawmakers wanted to see more details before commenting. Most, including Pearce, were not formally presented the plan.
“They could have done a better job of communicating with their elected officials,” said Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler. House Majority Leader Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, applauded Herstam’s effort to “think outside the box,” but was a bit cautious about the cost. “I’m concerned about the bureaucracy, but as long as they maintain a small, regional university feel and we don’t get into another mega-university like ASU, with all the commensurate costs and burdens of a large system, then I think it can work,” Farnsworth said. Pearce scoffed at Herstam’s assertion that his plan would enhance accessibility.
“By creating this (regional university) system you may end up with an inferior university system to ASU and UA,” Pearce said. Herstam’s plan is the latest in a series of reorganizations proposed by the universities and the regents in the past few years. Officials with the Maricopa Community College District would not comment except to say they support any effort to expand higher education in Arizona. The regents will meet June 3 to discuss the proposal.