The "curtain of distraction"

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

That poor Oregon State basketball player didn't stand a chance last week at the free throw line when ASU opened their "curtain of distraction" and Michael Phelps turned more than a few heads. I'm guessing we'll all be watching that curtain a little more closely now!

Perhaps not as noticeable, but still a head-turner, is a new report released last week which also draws back the curtain on higher education funding in the nation. Arizona, it turns out, has had not only the largest decrease in state funding from the previous year, but also ranks last in state spending on higher education.

According to the Grapevine report, Arizona's higher education appropriations are more than 27 percent less than they were in 2011, placing Arizona very near the bottom in per capita spending on higher education.

Contrast that with the fact that 35 states are spending more on higher education this year than they did five years ago, according to the Grapevine project's figures. Many of these states have recognized the key connection between an educated workforce and economic growth and have set aggressive goals to increase educational attainment.

The promising news is that Gov. Ducey has recommended $8 million in ongoing funds for our public universities in his executive budget. It is not all we hoped for, but it is a step in the right direction after years of cuts that have deeply impacted Arizona's students and families. The Governor's budget message and his inclusion of the universities in his State of the State address sends a strong signal that it's time to reinvest in Arizona's public universities.

Last week, the university presidents and I had the opportunity to present to both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Our mutual focus was the importance of funding Arizona students through our new funding model, which prioritizes state dollars for Arizona's resident students.

It is an idea whose time has come.  

Our state's public universities are operating at a loss for each resident student they educate.  Consider this - the average cost to educate a student at our universities is $15,550.  Resident tuition and fees provide $6,584 toward that cost and state support allocates $5,335 to offset the cost. That leaves a loss of $3,631 for each student. Our new funding model requests the state pay 50 percent over time of a resident student's education. Today, it is only 34 percent.

It's not lost on me what a challenging task legislators and the governor have before them to keep the state budget balanced. These remain uncertain times, both financially and economically, although the state budget surplus continues to grow and within two budget cycles will exceed $1 billion. During our presentations last week, we respectfully asked legislators to consider an additional $24 million above the governor's proposed $8 million, with the funding allocated per resident student.

Many of our legislators and business leaders have expressed support for our great universities with commentary that resonates - that the state has not met its obligation; increased funding is due; and that investing in the future is a sound financial decision. We are buoyed by their support, but we now need to translate that goodwill into votes that will support the Arizona student funding model and increase appropriations to help keep public university education within reach of Arizona families. 

If lawmakers draw back the curtain on funding higher education, they will see Arizona resident students clamoring for assistance to keep tuition affordable. We cannot be distracted as we make the case for strong state investment in Arizona's students.