Arizona's students - our primary shareholders

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Without a doubt, public higher education is an investment that pays dividends throughout an individual's lifetime, from increased wages to a better quality of life. In fact, Arizonans with an undergraduate degree earn a median wage that is approximately $20,000 more each year than their peers with a high-school diploma, underscoring the value of our public universities - not only to our graduates, but to Arizona's overall workforce and economy.

Arizona's students and families know full well that state financial support of public higher education in Arizona has been dramatically reduced over the past decade, and that, in turn, prompted tuition increases. I am pleased that we have slowed tuition increases significantly in the past several years while enhancing tuition predictability for students and families through tuition pledge and guarantee programs at our universities.

Along the way, we have endeavored to improve our tuition setting process, ensuring greater transparency and deeper scrutiny of tuition proposals. With tuition playing an even greater role as a source of operating revenue, tuition proposals now include an analysis of associated expenditures so that students - and the public - can see how the funds will be used to benefit them and the university as a whole. Those plans tie directly to the universities' operating budgets and strategic plans. Knowing our students have their choice of universities, we are keeping a sharp eye on the prices charged by our competitors and an even sharper focus on our costs. It is paying off - today, our universities are ranked among the most affordable among their peers.

Of all these efforts, however, the most beneficial has been the increased involvement of some of our most important shareholders - the students. This only makes sense. Our students are not just here to earn a degree, then leave. Rather, their time on our campuses is an important part of their development as a person. Their success is impacted by the quality and character of education we provide. Likewise, they become an implicit part of our brand as they establish careers, contribute to their communities and even become parents of future college students. As with any shareholder, our students reap benefits as our institutions' value grows over time.

The voice of our shareholders was heard earlier this week. Presidents Crow, Cheng and Hart each provided overviews of their tuition proposal and students, families and the public were able to voice their thoughts on the proposals directly to the regents in a statewide public hearing.

Many students voiced both support of the proposals and appreciation to the presidents for the opportunity to be involved in the process. Other students spoke in opposition of the proposals and new fees that accompany some classes and programs. In particular, one student asked the regents to think beyond costs and budgets and to simply consider "humanity" in setting tuition as he shared his story of homelessness, poverty and fear of hunger. Noting the lack of a robust state-based financial aid program, a few students even voiced support of tuition increases as a means to fund institutional-based financial aid.

Next week, the board will meet to discuss and set tuition for 2017-18. The shareholders of our public universities - the resident students we serve - and indeed, their humanity, will be at the forefront of the board's consideration as it sets tuition. While the Arizona Constitution states that tuition must be nearly as free as possible, the board must balance the appropriations from the state with fair tuition rates.

Finally, while I'm proud of the work we've done to improve tuition setting, slow tuition increases, enhance predictability and strengthen the involvement of our shareholders in the process, what students need now more than ever is a dependable commitment from our state. Now that the state is in an improved financial position after the Great Recession, we are aiming for long-term stability through a funding formula for Arizona's resident students that seeks a 50-50 split with the state and a capital investment plan proposed by Gov. Doug Ducey that will finance repairing aging buildings and constructing facilities focused on teaching and research.

The best investment our state can make for a bright and prosperous future is in the students who will lead, make discoveries and impact our state. That's an investment that will pay dividends far into the future.