Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said he feels like “Luke Skywalker against the Death Star” in his suit against the Arizona Board of Regents — but it remains unclear who his Han Solo is.
Brnovich filed a lawsuit against ABOR Sept. 8 2017, claiming they have raised tuition “dramatically and unconstitutionally high," but the Regents have said he has no right to challenge their hikes.
Part of the lawsuit addresses tuition increases and claims the board is breaking the law by allowing Arizona DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition at public universities.
The last person to challenge the Regents over this issue was former state legislator John Kromko in 2007. Kromko alleged the same thing Brnovich did over a decade ago when the board hiked tuition by nearly 30 percent. Despite courts not ruling in Kromko’s favor, Brnovich has persisted, saying that now is a better time than ever to question how much a university degree is worth.
In June 2017, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that DACA recipients are not allowed to receive in-state tuition, which led the Attorney General’s office to send a letter stating “ABOR’s tuition-setting policy does not comply with the constitutional mandate.”
The following month, Brnovich’s office threatened to sue ABOR over the tuition and fee price for in-state DACA students.
Brnovich defended his suit with a sentence from Arizona’s constitution, which mandates that college “should be as nearly free as possible." He said a college education is integral to the “American Dream" and it shouldn’t cause people to go into debt.
“I think providing oneself or their children the opportunity to earn that degree is a critical part of the American Dream,” Brnovich said to The State Press on March 26. “To me, getting jacked up with $50,000 to $60,000 in student debt doesn’t mean that your education is nearly as free as possible.”
ASU President Michael Crow has consistently countered Brnovich’s criticisms of tuition pricing in statements, tweets and public interviews.
Crow has said almost half of ASU students graduate with no debt, with the average net tuition for an in-state student sitting at about $2,000 per year. He said the average debt for an ASU graduate is $24,600 — not $66,000 as Brnovich claims.
Brnovich said he sued ABOR because they aren’t addressing main questions about tuition pricing, though he's not declaring what tuition should cost through the suit.
“I’m not saying what the price of tuition should be, and this is one of the things the Regents and their high-priced lawyers have misrepresented about our lawsuit,” Brnovich said. “I believe that the formula (to calculate tuition) they are using is unconstitutional."
That argument was debated by the Regents lawyers in Maricopa County Superior Court earlier in March before Judge Connie Contes. According to ABOR, 11 years ago the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that no one should intervene with ABOR’s tuition-setting mandate.
“In setting tuition and fees the board is immune from suit, just like the Arizona Legislature would be if it had set tuition and fees,” a Regents spokesperson said in an email. “It is a point of pride that a recent independent study found the cost to a student of attending an Arizona public university is less than the national average of four-year public universities, including both research and non-research institutions.”
But Brnovich has not denied that part of the reason tuition has increased could be due to the state defunding higher education. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report showing that Arizona's support for students has fallen 53.8 percent since the Great Recession, the largest drop in the nation and more than three times the national average.
Student leaders showed their support for ABOR and dismissed Brnovich’s claims.
Undergraduate Student Government Downtown President Jackson Dangremond said the lawsuit isn’t there to really effect change for DACA students and that it is a political ploy for reelection.
“I really see the lawsuit as just being an act for the Attorney General to try and gain political capital as it is reelection year for him,” Dangremond said. “Really, I found a lot of the claims made within the lawsuit to be pretty unfounded as he ignores the broader concept of higher education funding in Arizona.”
He said within Arizona, tuition has increased but state support in terms of funding has severely decreased, which Brnovich ignores in the suit.
“He ignores that in the majority of his statements and claims that tuition has gone up. But he is in fact correct: tuition has gone up exponentially in Arizona, but at the same time, state funding has exponentially decreased,” Dangremond said. “So, I think that if the core of his argument is why is tuition going up so drastically and posing that question on a more neutral basis, the lawsuit would be more founded.”
Jimmy Arwood, a public policy senior, said students should be wary of politicians because it's an election year and the attorney general’s suit isn’t truly on students’ side.
“I don’t think the attorney general really cares about students," Arwood said. "I think he’s just trying to win political points. And as a student, I am sick and tired of politicians trying to win political points on issues that impact us everyday.”
He said it’s the legislature’s responsibility to fund the major universities in Arizona, which is impossible when the legislature continues to make cuts in university budgets.
But the timing of the lawsuit doesn’t seem to matter to Brnovich. He asks: “Why not?”
“I think some people see things as they are and ask why," Brnovich said. "Others see things that they should be and ask why not. I can’t solve every problem in the state — I’m not the governor, I’m not the legislature, I’m not a policymaker — but I do know that there is an opportunity here to question what the universities were doing.”