Arizona's three public universities are widely popular and frequently use that clout to boost their taxpayer funding in good times and to protect it from excessive slashing in economic downturns. And if past history holds true, this fall's economic meltdown likely will prompt even more people to seek a college degree, adding to enrollments that already have been setting records at Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University.
However, an uncomfortable reality is university funding is one of the largest portions of the state budget where the Legislature and governor still have total control over the level of spending. An ongoing budget crisis with mounting shortfalls will force lawmakers to further scale back beyond $22 million in university funding cuts earlier this year and a recent move by a committee to block $1 billion in building construction.
ASU President Michael Crow has wisely started to prepare the four campuses under his administration for the inevitable. As the Tribune's Ryan Gabrielson reported Thursday, Crow spoke directly to the university's communities last week about the need to eliminate teaching positions, to reduce salaries and to take other steps that will shrink spending by $25 million to $75 million. Gabrielson reported such cuts would translate as up to 16 percent of the state's support for ASU. Given that overall state shortfalls could reach 10 percent of this year's General Fund budget and 30 percent of next year's, Crow and ASU definitely need to brace for the worst.
And the universities aren't alone. The state's community colleges also have little protection from the budget ax, although they do receive a portion of their revenues from local property taxes. Rufus Glasper, chancellor of the Maricopa County Community College District, already has alerted the district's 10 colleges to prepare to spend less in the near future.
Ideally, Arizona's somewhat anemic private universities would jump in to provide the educations that residents will have a harder time obtaining at taxpayer institutions. Successful competition would offer more choices to students of the future and ease funding burdens on taxpayers in the long run.