Debate sparks over proposed education budget, its implications for Arizona

After Gov. Jan Brewer released her proposed education budget Friday, heated debate soon ensued among education advocates, state politicians and university affiliates.

The Arizona Board of Regents, which governs policy for the three public state universities, asked for a funding increase of at least $100 million to combat rising tuition rates.

The proposed budget essentially provided no growth in funding for the universities, other than a small increase for ASU and NAU to bring their per-student funds up to the levels that UA has been receiving from the state.

But not all share the Board’s disappointment.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said funds need to be directed away from research universities and should be diverted toward institutions that are more practical for most students’ needs, such as non-research four-year colleges, community colleges and trade schools. There are no public four-year colleges in Arizona, just the three research universities and several private institutions.

Arizona’s public universities, because of their research focus, place less of an emphasis on teaching and more on outside work, driving tuition costs up and the quality of education down, Kavanagh added.

“If you’re a student that doesn’t intend to go on to be a college professor or some kind of a researcher, then your needs can be better met, and more cheaply met, at a non-research four-year university or four-year college, or in some cases a community college,” Kavanagh said. “With the limited dollars we have, we can’t put more money that’s necessary into research universities at the expense of other options.”

Kavanagh teaches criminal justice at Scottsdale Community College and is the director of SCC’s Administration of Justice Studies and Forensic Science Program.

He said he believes these less expensive institutions are better tools for the Arizona economy, as they accrue less student debt and don’t over-educate those who don’t need a research university-level education.

University accessibility policies were better up to the 1970s, when a college degree was harder to obtain, and thus graduates were more competitive in relation to the nation’s top-rated programs, Kavanagh said.

“It was harder to get into colleges in those days, and the level of students by SAT scores was higher,” he said. “You also didn’t have a lot of students who didn’t need a four-year university going to colleges and assuming all sorts of student loan debt. If you want to say everyone deserves an education, then we should just force Harvard to admit 100,000 people. And you could do that, and make them feel good, but then Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard anymore.”

Kavanagh said Arizona needs to re-evaluate its policies with regards to higher education access so that the state’s public universities can obtain better reputations for excellence with smaller student populations, especially at ASU, the largest public undergraduate university in the country.

“ASU has 70,000 students,” he said. “There aren’t too many universities that let that many people in, and the only way to do that is to lower your standing as a research university community.”

When universities accept so many students, the value of the degree lowers after graduation, Kavanagh said.

“Dr. (Michael) Crow’s done a great job, but he could do an even better job if he was working with a smaller number of students with higher SAT scores,” Kavanagh said. “Then he might be approaching Ivy League level, and that would be a great option for Arizona students.”

This approach directly contrasts with ASU’s inclusive policy for A New American University, ASU President Michael Crow’s philosophy of a large, diverse student body that is able to succeed regardless of background. As listed on the University website, “ASU measures itself by those it includes and how they succeed, not by those it excludes.”

In an interview with The State Press editorial board in fall 2012, Crow said the New American University would be more efficient and effective.

“Size actually works in our favor in building infrastructure, because it costs almost as much to build infrastructure for 1,000 students as it does for 10,000 students,” he said. “If you have 70,000 students on four campuses, we can run our infrastructure on a much more efficient basis.”

Crow also said ASU’s size helps it to offer more opportunities to students, such as certificates outside of degrees, while still keeping costs lower than more prestigious institutions.

“Those particular schools like MIT and Stanford and Harvard and Columbia, where I used to be on faculty, none of those schools will ever offer certificates, because their price is determined by the scarcity of their product,” he said. “This is raw economics. Scarcity is how they’re able to drive up their price.”

Rick Myers, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents, largely supports ASU’s philosophy and disagrees that research universities should receive less funding from the state.

“(ASU) is not limiting students who may not be coming as well-prepared, but trying to help those students who aren’t as well-prepared to catch up and to be successful,” he said. “So I think (Crow’s) approach of not being selective but trying to have outstanding results by accepting people from all walks of life and with all levels of preparation is inspiring. And it’s exactly what everyone should be trying to do to make this state better in the future.”

Myers also said by investing more taxpayer dollars into the public universities, the state will see higher economic growth as a result of a highly-educated workforce, a direct opposition to the Kavanagh’s beliefs.

“We have the ability to create the future that Arizona deserves,” he said. “And we do that by helping the people of Arizona realize their potential as individuals.”

By reaching this potential, the economy receives new vitality, jobs and companies to boost employment, Myers said.

Arizona has one of the lowest-educated workforces in the country, he said, and as a result, the state has one of the lowest per-capita incomes as well.

Although admittedly not everyone needs a university education, he said, the state needs more highly educated Arizonans to be able to compete in the larger economy.

In response to Kavanagh’s comments on collegiate policies before the 1970s, Myers said times have changed.

“It was a much less competitive world,” he said. “We didn’t have China, or India, or 10 other countries in the world economy competing for our lunch. And we have to be prepared for that if we want to maintain the standard of living we’ve created.”

Myers said the governor’s proposed budget represents something greater than funding cuts, as it means the state is neglecting its responsibility to its citizens.

“My personal belief is that educating the next generation is a societal responsibility,” he said. “And when you push it more onto the parents and the students themselves, you’re not owning up to that societal responsibility, and you’re saying, ‘If you want a college education, that’s on you. It’s not on all of us.’ And I think what would help make this nation great would be society overall stepping up and saying, ‘We want the generation to build an even better future.’”

With heated arguments spouting from both sides, the months leading up to the finalized March budget will likely be filled with even more debate. The outcome is likely to affect all people associated with the state’s public universities, as some of their fundamental philosophies have been called into question.

“This is a process,” Myers said. “There’s a lot of work to do between now and then.”

Reach the reporter at elmahone@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @mahoneysthename