Avoid knee-jerk plans to expand university system - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Avoid knee-jerk plans to expand university system

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Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2004 10:39 pm | Updated: 5:54 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Aside from just keeping up with breakneck growth, Arizona is in the midst of an education revolution to raise both the number and quality of our classrooms from kindergarten through graduate school. It's vitally important for individual success and for our economic vitality in this information age.

So it's gratifying that the Arizona Board of Regents has been looking at ways our state university system can upgrade and expand to better serve the burgeoning ranks of students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Plans in recent months have included building a research emphasis at Arizona State University's Tempe campus while expanding ASU East and ASU West, creating a bioscience research and business center in south Scottsdale and a new downtown Phoenix campus.

This is an ambitious, expensive undertaking intended, in part, to raise ASU to world-class status in the promising arena of bio-science — with huge potential impact on Arizona's economy. Along with big plans at Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona, the Board of Regents will have its hands full for the next decade.

That is why it came as a surprise, to say the least, when Regents President Chris Herstam unveiled plans on May 22 for two new universities in the state that would focus on undergraduate programs. NAU, which would be realigned as an undergraduate university, would be the flagship for the new universities, located in southern and central Arizona.

But the surprise plans help explain Crow's and the regents' knee-jerk rejection earlier this year of a legislative proposal to allow community colleges to offer some four-year degrees. Crow, who's usually open to new ideas, all but warned of a meltdown of the community college system if the Legislature allowed pilot four-year programs in high-demand fields such as nursing and education. It is a certainty that the university and community college systems will have to expand and upgrade to meet the demands of growth and the high-tech economy.

It's also quite likely that the private higher-education industry — woefully underdeveloped in Arizona compared with other states — can and should meet a larger portion of the demand as well. A system of state higher-education financial aid similar to Colorado's, where vouchers can be used at public or private institutions, would allow students greater choice and invigorate the state's educational marketplace.

This is no time to rubber-stamp one set of plans or another. Rather, state leaders should examine the challenges and all the options and then map a responsible strategy accordingly. Let's not settle for simply playing catchup with growth and economic demands.

Let's fully reinvent higher education in Arizona based on a market-driven model that will yield the highest quality education for every tax dollar spent.

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