Public universities finally open to alternatives - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Public universities finally open to alternatives

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Posted: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 9:44 pm | Updated: 3:09 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Our View: The state agency that oversees Arizona's three public universities has received a $1.5 million private grant to kick-start a strategy that would open new doors for pursuing college degrees. While the grant will be helpful, the mere fact that the Arizona Board of Regents pursued it reflects a seismic shift in the future of public higher education.

The state agency that oversees Arizona's three public universities has received a $1.5 million private grant to kick-start a strategy that would open new doors for pursuing college degrees. While the grant will be helpful, the mere fact that the Arizona Board of Regents pursued it reflects a seismic shift in the future of public higher education.

Throughout the state's history, Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, and Northern Arizona University had vigorously sought to hold onto any state tax dollars that subsidize four-year college degrees. While organized as scientific research campuses, the three universities divided up just about every possible career and effectively locked out private alternatives that didn't cater to business and financial services degrees.

This exclusivity has sharply limited the available options and became a huge problem for thousands of Arizonans in the past decade as tuition costs spiralled upward. The universities and the Board of Regents believed they had little choice, as the state budget hadn't provided enough money to match the rapid growth in student enrollment. But the universities' refusal to relax any control trapped those students into pushing the enrollment rates higher in the first place.

Critics cried that the universities were violating a constitutional provision that required them to keep the cost of a four-year education as "nearly free as possible." But the universities used their political influence to stifle every legislative attempt to establish more affordable alternatives, from stand-alone universities that would focus closely on undergraduate degrees to four-year degrees from community colleges in critically needed fields.

Now, the massive resistance to change appears to be over. The three universities finally understand they can't possibly serve every profession and every resident who wants a degree. For the first time, the Board of Regents is encouraging collaboration on projects that might spring up outside of its direct control.

Capitol Media Services reported Monday that a $1.5 million grant from the Lumina Foundation will aid the state to move down this path. Ideas in the grant application include two new regional universities and new partnerships with community colleges. Grant money also will be used for reorientation planning that would base state funding for the universities on how many students they graduate, instead of just how many students are enrolled.

The best news is the Board of Regents wants to act quickly, with lower-cost undergraduate programs starting in Maricopa County next year and expanding statewide within a decade. A more robust and competitive higher education system finally could be on the horizon. 

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