On March 31, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal filed an amicus brief urging the Arizona Supreme Court to hear a case on the issue of tuition increases at the state’s public universities. The case, initiated by Attorney General Mark Brnovich, alleges that the Arizona Board of Regents has violated the state’s constitutional mandate that university “instruction…shall be as nearly free as possible.”
The Martin Center is a nonpartisan nonprofit institute dedicated to excellence in higher education. The reason we filed the brief is because we believe an injustice is being done to Arizona’s residents, with dire consequences for the next generation. The facts show that the Legislature and public universities are treating the constitutional mandate to keep the state’s universities affordable with contempt.
In a 2017 press release, Brnovich explained his reasons for the suit. “Within the last 15 years, Arizona went from having some of the most affordable public universities to having some of the most expensive. We believe the Board of Regents needs to be held accountable and answer tough questions for Arizona’s skyrocketing tuition rates,” he said.
Rather than holding down costs to keep tuition affordable, the universities have been adding staff at a higher rate than the rest of the nation and cranking up tuition to pay for them. Consider the following facts: In 20 years, from 1998 to 2018, tuition increases at all three major Arizona public universities exceeded 400%. The worst was the University of Arizona, where in-state tuition rose from $2,162 in 1998 to $12,487 in 2018 (478%). And all three Arizona schools had tuition higher than the national average for public universities ($10,440 in 2019).
To put this into perspective, in the same time period, the official U.S. inflation rate rose by 54% and per capita spending on health care (in constant dollars) rose 73%. In a similar period, from 1999 to 2019, in-state tuition at public universities nationwide rose only 102%.
One of the biggest drivers of the tuition increases is administrative bloat. The number of professional non-instructional staff rose 71.4% from 1990 to 2012. From 2006 to 2018, instruction costs per student rose by 28%. That pales to the increase in other costs, such as student support services (over 100%) and academic support expenses (91%).
This failure to keep costs down and passing on the burden to students is hurting Arizona’s young people. In 2017, for example, 54% of all graduates of Arizona public universities left school with student debt. The average amount owed was $23,967.
For some, who had excellent job offers upon graduation, that is not an excessive amount to repay. But not all students get such offers. Among all recent graduates, 43% of college graduates are underemployed in their first year after graduation, meaning they have a first job that does not require a college degree. Over half (54%) of psychology majors and 51% of biology majors are underemployed post-graduation.
Nor do underemployed graduates rapidly move ahead once they are in the workforce full time. Over two-thirds of that 43% remain underemployed after five years, and roughly half remain underemployed after 10 years.
What’s more, one-third of students who start at Arizona’s public universities but fail to finish fare even worse.
Mired in debt with low earnings is a bad way to start adulthood. This situation hurts Arizona’s overall economy and society in general; many young people must postpone getting married, having children, and buying homes and furnishing them because of their debt.
The solution, or at least part of it, is easy: stop raising tuition. Make public education in Arizona affordable again. After all, it’s in the state Constitution. The Martin Center adamantly supports the attorney general’s effort to ensure that the Arizona Board of Regents follows the law. Arizona residents should let their legislators know they support him as well.
Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, and Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis.