Big Thinkers Need a Big Table

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

This week, the Arizona Board of Regents found itself in the middle of a lawsuit, one that has the potential to be long and messy.

As the initial surprise wore off, the reaction from regents was strong. That led to other strong reactions, suggesting there was not enough big thinking going on.

There is plenty of big thinking going on inside the university system. Outside of it, too.

What we lack isn't big thinking. We lack a big table where we can do it with others equally committed to student success. Everyone knows tuition and student debt are problems. So is an under-educated workforce.

Initial numbers show that over the next 15 years, Arizona needs to educate a million more people beyond the high school level for them to be competitive in the workforce.

Whatever the court finds on the university tuition lawsuit, it cannot solve those problems for the state.

Neither can the Legislature. The notion of a college education offered in Arizona from entities "other than" the public universities has been advanced here for more than a decade. But, the legislative arena creates winners and losers through assignments of power and money, so alternatives are swiftly thwarted, precisely because they are seen as alternatives to a university degree.

That's not all bad. Unlike other states, Arizona isn't dealing with a struggling middling and expensive state college system with schools that can't attract students in a competitive marketplace. Political détente and meaningful progress instead have been achieved through AZTransfer, a 20-year collaboration to increase programs and courses transferred between community colleges and universities. Today, community college transfer students make up a significant number of incoming students to our universities as they complete their bachelor's or higher degrees.

Yes, that's good. But more than ever, Arizona needs options that are "in addition to" a university degree. No doubt that the Joint Council of Presidents, the working group of university and community college presidents can and should work together toward altogether new offerings in degrees and workforce training. But, the solutions won't be found entirely with them either. They will still need the help of the state, starting with a meaningful and portable state-based financial aid program. 

Beyond policy, the state needs to update its organizational design within the executive branch. Higher education is as essential to individual opportunity and liberty as ever, but the model designed in our constitution is maxed out. Now in its second century, Arizona could use a refresh on its governance structure, one that fosters alignment and cooperation within public higher education, minimizes duplication, improves oversight and better connects the higher education system to K-12.

With a new attainment goal, we know where we want that system to go. There are many good ideas on how to get there. Blame and attacks are not among them.

We will get there by convening and conversing. We can do it ourselves, although ideally this work needs to be done with leaders other than ourselves. It would also help to have the support of the governor. He can't solve these problems alone, but he does have the biggest table in town.

Save me a seat.