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Believe it: Tuition hike is coming

Students of Mesa Community College could face a tuition hike if lawmakers adopted Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal to cut state support to higher education. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Students of Mesa Community College could face a tuition hike if lawmakers adopted Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal to cut state support to higher education. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

When pressed about whether cuts to higher education would lead to higher tuition, the Governor’s Office hedged, but the heads of Arizona’s community colleges said the reduction is so steep they will have little choice but to propose that students pay more.

And while Gov. Jan Brewer’s plan would reduce state support to community colleges by about half, some districts face a Darwinian slashing of their state aid.

If adopted, the governor’s plan, for example, would reduce general fund support to community colleges in Maricopa County to $6.9 million from $51 million, an 86 percent cut.

The Yavapai County district, meanwhile, faces a 79 percent cut in state support.

“I will propose a tuition fee increase as part of the offset, but it cannot solely be a tuition fee increase,” said Rufus Glasper, chancellor for Maricopa Community Colleges, the biggest district in the state.

The district’s tuition, which hasn’t increased in the past few years, is $71 per credit hour. Glasper said he can’t say what would be a reasonable increase at this point.

But to offset the cut with a tuition hike alone, the district would have to raise the fee by $16 per credit hour. The chancellor said that’s too steep, and he cannot in good conscience propose such an increase.

Glasper said the district’s challenge is how to serve a rapidly growing student population with diminishing resources.

In addition to foreseeing a tuition hike, the chancellor said the district may have to reduce the size of, or even close, some programs.

Jeanne Swarthout, president of Northland Pioneer College, said she, too, will propose a modest tuition hike.

But it’s not her college she’s greatly worried about, she said.

“I’m extremely uncomfortable for the community colleges as a whole because I think there are community colleges that won’t be able to make adjustments,” said Swarthout, who is also president of the Arizona Community College President’s Council.

The bulk of community college revenue comes from three sources: state aid, property taxes and tuition fees. Of the three, state aid accounts for about 12 percent of colleges’ aggregate budget.

The governor’s plan assumes community college revenues from property taxes and tuition would increase next year, and that a 6 percent cut of state support means their budget will hold steady at $1.1 billion in fiscal 2012.

The increase in revenue from tuition does not necessarily mean a higher tuition; in the governor’s plan, the increase could come from an increase in the number of students.

Republican leaders see the governor’s budget plan as a starting point. Many lawmakers anticipate some tweaks, but said substantial changes to the proposed reductions are unlikely.

House Speaker Kirk Adams perhaps best exemplifies Republicans’ view of the proposed cuts.  Adams said while the reduction in state aid is “significant,” college budgets have not been cut as much as the rest of state government in the last two budget cycles.

The state was under a federal requirement to maintain spending levels both for K-12 and higher education in the past two years. That requirement expires next year.

Adams also said the proposed cuts represent only slightly more than 6 percent of community colleges’ total budget.

“This, I think, highlights the challenge that we have, whether it’s community colleges, universities, K-12,” Adams said. “How do you continue to manage through the crisis, do what you have to do and make sure you don’t damage the institutions?”

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