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Tuition setters treat State Constitution with respect, full attention

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Two out-of-state policy advocates from the Martin Center in North Carolina recently wrote in support of the Arizona Attorney General’s bid to expand his authority. These North Carolinians urged that we allow the Attorney General to exercise power beyond Arizona Constitutional authority and gubernatorial and Legislative direction. The limits of Attorney General authority has been settled law in Arizona for decades.

At specific issue – currently in front of the Arizona Supreme Court – is whether the Attorney General can sue his own client, the Arizona Board of Regents. The North Carolinians missed the real issue before the court. The headline of the piece, “Stop raising tuition, treating Arizona Constitution with contempt” is as misleading as the facts used in the piece.

Fred DuVal

Fred DuVal

The Arizona Constitution addresses tuition in two ways. It mandates that instruction in our schools be “as nearly free as possible.” Secondly, it requires the Legislature to raise revenue “by taxation” for the proper maintenance of the institutions. With those two Constitutional requirements, the Legislature has assigned the regents the responsibility of setting tuition.

When the Attorney General initiated this case, he chose to focus on only one Constitutional mandate. One would think that ignoring the other Constitutional directive in favor of cherry picking the one that best advances a political narrative, and not the founders’ intent, would be “treating the Arizona Constitution with contempt.”

The factual basis of the opinion piece was as inaccurate as the title.

The essay cites national increases in university budgets over the last few decades – such as significant growth in per student costs. But that national story is opposite from the Arizona experience. Here, per student expenditure growth is below inflation; our cost per degree is among the nation’s lowest; and our use of space is more efficient than peer universities.

The cost to students is top of mind to the tuition-setting Board of Regents. The average debt per Arizona graduate is in the lowest third of the country. Why? Our seamless transfer collaboration with the community colleges enables tens of thousands of our students to save significant money by blending their course providers. And the regents have kept net tuition – that is the average tuition actually paid by Arizona students after financial aid – very low at less than $4,000.

In every respect, ABOR has sought to make education as nearly free as possible, even in the face of budget reductions from the state that have reduced the state’s investment by more than 50 percent on a per student basis over the last 15 years. These are some of the deepest cuts in the country.

I would submit the tuition setters – as proscribed by the Legislature – are treating the Constitutional requirements with respect and their full attention.

The authors advance the idea that we are graduating too many students, and that we should return to the university system of 20 years ago where we enrolled almost exclusively upper-income white students, charged lower tuition, provided no financial aid, and had a dismal retention and graduation rate.

This is a stunning suggestion in a knowledge-based economy where the correlation between educational attainment and economic growth is well-established both in the global and national economies.

And the suggestion is ignorant of the growing diversity of Arizona’s population, and the simple fact that 29 percent of our citizens have a degree vs. 35 percent of the rest of the states.

We need more graduates – not less – to raise Arizona income levels and grow our economy, and we can’t get there with the homogeneous student populations of 20 years ago.

It is ironic that the North Carolina authors are intruding into Arizona’s higher education policy setting. Their own state has a Constitutional provision like our own that requires the state to support its universities at a level that will guarantee access. And that commitment has manifested legislatively in the North Carolina Promise program – a state-based financial aid program. Today – according to the authors’ own Martin Center fact sheet – the state of North Carolina covers over 40 percent of the total University of North Carolina system budget.

Now that is a way to keep tuition low and honor all aspects of the Arizona Constitution.

Fred DuVal serves on the Arizona Board of Regents.

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