Our View: Time for legislators to fix the university funding gap - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Our View: Time for legislators to fix the university funding gap

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Posted: Sunday, April 1, 2012 8:57 am | Updated: 10:21 am, Mon Apr 9, 2012.

When Michael Crow became president of Arizona State University, he brought with him a lofty long-term vision, catchy buzz-phrases like “New American University,” and the promise of access, achievement and progress.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a full 10 years since Crow left Columbia University for the Valley; the ASU community and campus persona of yesteryear is hardly recognizable – and mostly for the better.

What’s even harder to believe, however: Despite record enrollment numbers (access), rocketing program and overall university rankings (achievement), and the development of an ASU brand that transcends Tempe, Mesa, Downtown Phoenix and all of Arizona (progress), the system the state uses to determine how it funds its three public universities has stayed virtually intact for decades. It was created eons before Crow saw something special in a then-middling desert institution, and the last adjustment of any kind came before the concept of a “Y2K” crash even entered our lexicon.

That all may change — and soon — if the Arizona Senate, House, and Gov. Jan Brewer see fit to bridge the per-student funding gap that currently exists between ASU, the University of Arizona, and Northern Arizona University.

Under the current model, the state directs $838 more per year for a student to attend the UA than it does for those to attend ASU (and $729 more in comparison to NAU).

Crow and ASU leadership are right: The model is broken, and the only way to fix it is to level it out. What’s more, UA and NAU are on board too, to one degree or another. All three are in support of HB 2090, which made it through a Senate panel March 8 and now must be approved on the Senate floor, in the House, and then pass Gov. Brewer’s desk.

The change would allocate an additional $12 million to ASU and an extra $3.3 million to NAU over the next five years, in addition to the standard all three will receive, as yet to be determined by lawmakers.

Crow attests that it would take about $120 million to ultimately fix the irregularity, caused in concept more than half a century ago when ASU’s initial purview as a teacher’s college demanded less funding than the UA, a land grant university. The Arizona Board of Regents, which manages the Arizona university system, still sees the disproportion closer to half that number because of “special responsibilities” at the UA, including its medical school and agricultural offerings.

In any case, the $15.3 million is a start — and a necessary one.

Crow’s vision for ASU — which for the East Valley includes further development of both the Tempe and Mesa Polytechnic campuses — centers on a desire for a performance-based funding model in Arizona. Each university would receive a base, with graduation rates and other metrics determining the end amount allotted by legislators and the governor.

The only way to create the performance-based model is to start on the same plateau.

Some — Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, for one — have questioned the timing of the proposal. “We don’t have the $15.3 million,” he said recently.

But after years of cutbacks — and years of financial decisions that have ignored the plausibility of long-term academic growth — legislators, this time, need to find the money.

It should be made clear: While HB 2090, as written does mean the UA will not receive an increase (but doesn’t necessarily lose out either), the argument to bridge the funding gap is not a potshot at quality of opportunities offered through the UA, nor NAU.

Arizona’s three-headed public university system may, on the surface, seem limited compared to the multi-campus behemoths of the University of California or California State systems, or even those in Oregon, New Mexico or Texas.

But the setup, as Crow intimates, actually serves the personality of our state — and the individuality of three of its core communities — well.

All three universities need the opportunity to look ahead, and ASU’s transformation under Crow over the last decade is the linchpin for a new system to do so.

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