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University system budget request to end nightmare

The Arizona university system fiscal year 2013 budget request asks the state to begin reinvesting in higher education. It represents the end of a nightmare that students and parents have been living through with the past four years of budget cuts that have resulted in 90 percent tuition increases. It represents the investment we need from the state to produce more graduates for high-demand business fields that enhance Arizona’s economic competitiveness and provide a greater quality of life for our residents. Furthermore, this budget request is not just a “university needs list,” but a specific result of legislative direction.

To recap, the request includes

$36.1 million in permanent additions to the system’s base funding for critical educational needs. It also includes

$83.2 million in one-time money for partnership programs with the community colleges that increase student access and success, and technology infrastructure programs that contribute to greater operating efficiencies. Budget cuts and increased enrollments mean larger and more efficient classrooms, so we ask to build them. Parity funding for Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University means bringing per-student funding levels to par with the University of Arizona, as directed by the Legislature. The state has recognized the need to produce more doctors, so we are meeting that request by growing UofA College of Medicine. Responding responsibly to the mandates of the Legislature should translate into budgetary support.

The entire budget request is less than 5 percent of the total three-year revenue generated by Proposition 100. The budget was designed specifically with that temporary revenue in mind. Arizona voters passed Proposition 100 under the promise that it would protect education. Recognizing that the first two years of the Proposition 100 money was used to mitigate even deeper cuts to education’ the third year presents an estimated

$350 million more in state general funds than originally projected.

Policymakers have an opportunity in front of them to reaffirm the state’s commitment to higher education by directing some of that money back to the university system. Doing so would begin the restoration of more than $430 million in cuts since 2008 and soften the blow of tuition increases. The Board of Regents has had to raise tuition to offset half of those state budget reductions. If the Legislature is able to fund a meaningful portion of our request, we have pledged to hold the line on tuition increases next year. At a time when more jobs demand higher education and record numbers of students are enrolling in our universities, this reinvestment is more critical than ever.

The board is not blind to the other budget obligations policymakers have in fiscal year 2013 and beyond. But, we would ask that policymakers clearly see the role higher education plays in preparing the workforce of the future, advancing research that improves our lives, creating new jobs, and most importantly, ensuring a strong economy. The higher education mission should be advanced while we have a dedicated funding source for it.

The Board of Regents has fundamentally changed the way the university system operates to meet the needs of growing student populations and changing economies. We are governing and managing the system through outcome-driven metrics that we will hold our universities accountable to. We have forged new partnerships with the community colleges and have deployed a wide array of new educational delivery models that offer students high quality degrees at a lower price point. We are also working with the executive and legislative branches to move to a performance-based funding formula for fiscal year 2014 — one that will increase the productivity of our institutions and give taxpayers and the state a bigger return on its investment by better aligning our output to the state’s economic needs.

Education is widely recognized as one of the pillars of strength that made America a global leader. Slowly, that position is eroding. In recent decades, the landscape of our country and our state has changed dramatically. Our leaders have been faced with unprecedented challenges. But the one thing that remains constant is that education leads to productive and innovative individuals contributing to the advancement of our economy and society. Absent a strong partnership between the state and our university system, our economy will never realize its fullest potential. Let that not be lost in our state’s budget discussion.

— Fred DuVal is chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents.

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