Gov. Doug Ducey suggested Thursday that the funding cuts just imposed on the state’s three universities might be permanent.
And he would not rule out future reductions in state aid.
In his first appearance ever before the Board of Regents, the governor said he wants the board to create “a sustainable long–term business plan that addresses the needs of students and the business community that depends on their success.” And Ducey said that can’t all rely on state aid.
Ducey, who is a member of the board – but has never before gone to a meeting since taking office in January – promised to work with them.
But the governor sidestepped a direct question by board member Bill Ridenour of whether Ducey would commit to restoring some of the $99 million he and the Legislature cut in university funding just last month, that on top of funding reductions in prior years.
The governor responded by citing “the difficulty of the financial situation of the state and the shortfall that we faced coming into office.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Ducey was no more forthcoming about promising future funding. He said the state now puts about 7 percent of its $9.1 billion budget into universities.
“Of course, there’s opportunity for that to go up,” he said. “But we need a growing economy to make that happen.”
But Ducey said the state’s finances forced him and lawmakers “to make difficult and permanent decisions.”
Nor was he willing to say that the current level of funding – about $650 million compared with more than $1 billion just eight years ago – is the floor.
“We are managing in a time of some scarcity,” Ducey said.
“I’d much rather be in a time of abundance,” he continued. “If the economy’s growing, we’ll have more dollars in which to make decisions on.”
The governor did tell the regents that they cannot simply depend on state funding to keep the university system operating. But he refused to say what percent of costs should be borne by students versus taxpayers, saying only college should be “as affordable as possible.”
“That’s what I think should be the role of the state, of the financial aid model, of the structure of the university and the administration,” he said. “When you talk about opportunity for all, I want to see kids that want to go to college be able to access college.”
The governor’s presentation came just a day before the three university presidents are set to unveil on Friday how much, if at all, they want to increase tuition. Yet Ducey, who signed that $99 million cut into law – the largest one-year reduction in recent memory – told the regents they should restrain themselves.
“As leaders who oversee the university system, you must recognize the delicate balance between the growing needs of your institutions in a competitive environment with a product that young people and their parents can afford,” Ducey told the regents. But he provided no guidance as to what they should do.
“I urge you to approach this endeavor in a businesslike fashion when considering whether to raise prices,” he said. Ducey told the regents they should examine the proposals critically and look at alternatives to higher tuition, like cutting administrative costs and eliminating “programs that do not work.”
And the governor suggested that price may trump everything else.
“In business, making a quality product that fewer can afford does not often make sense,” he said.
In the last five years tuition and mandatory fees for state residents at Arizona State University has increased 25 percent to the current level of $10,157 for new students. The $10,957 figure for the University of Arizona is up 33 percent over the same period; a 30 percent increase at Northern Arizona University translates to current tuition of $9,989.
Mark Killian, who chairs the board, said after the meeting the board cannot count on Ducey or the Legislature to provide the funding he says is needed.
Killian has asked the board’s attorneys whether it can sue the state for violating a constitutional provision which requires instruction be “as nearly free as possible.” He said he is hoping for an answer very soon.
And Killian said there’s another alternative if lawmakers and the governor won’t budge.
“I think you’ll see a move at the ballot box by the folks through initiative or other process to force the Legislature to take care of the universities,” Killian said.
Killian said board members have been responsive to concerns about funding and have cut expenses. And he said they have worked to improve the state’s economy by graduating more students under the premise that a college degree means higher wages and more money to spend.
“And then you go to the Legislature and they say, ‘Well, you have too many people going to college,’” Killian said. That refers to comments made last year by Fountain Hills Republican John Kavanagh when he chaired the House Appropriations Committee who said Arizona is spending too much money providing a university education to students who really do not need it.
“If somebody’s going to end up in a sales position or someone’s going to be a real estate agent, why are we investing all this money in a research university degree?” Kavanagh said. “What’s the purpose of it?”
Killian, a former state House speaker, said there is “an animosity level toward universities (at the Capitol) which I cannot understand.”
On a related tuition issue, the governor rejected a call by one student that he agree to allow “dreamers”
who otherwise qualify as Arizona residents to pay in-state tuition when they attend state universities.
Former Attorney General Tom Horne concluded that a 2006 ballot measure that limits in-state tuition to citizens and legal residents. That decision is being challenged in court by Maricopa Community College, though the regents have not to date fought that opinion.