Dramatic shift in higher education plan puts students at the heart of Arizona's public universities

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

Last week, the Arizona Board of Regents unveiled a new strategic plan for Arizona's public universities. The plan respects the longstanding mission of our universities: to provide broad access to the highest levels of learning and the creation and dissemination of new knowledge. Importantly, this plan also recognizes significant changes in the economy and particularly in the higher education marketplace.

This plan frames a model for higher education as a new way to define and operate Arizona's public university system as an enterprise - one that serves a constitutionally mandated public purpose but does not comport to the traditions of academic hierarchies or traditional state bureaucracies. This plan places students and their success squarely and unmistakably at the center of our work.

Our commitment to students also requires us to think very differently about how we fund university education in Arizona.

Today, universities are funded as state agencies with general fund dollars flowing for general purposes, creating ambiguity for appropriators about the relative value of their expenditures. Changes in state finances have reduced state funding for universities in the past eight years alone by more than $463 million. Continued reductions have left the financial relationship between the state and public universities undefined at best. The state is now a minority shareholder in our public universities with total state support representing only 14 percent of current operating budgets.

Our new model makes a dramatic shift to stop the debate about how much is enough for public universities. We're proposing that new monies from the Legislature stop funding our universities as institutions and instead begin funding the Arizona students who attend them. By concentrating state appropriations on the support of Arizona resident students, we are better able to address the affordability concerns that rightly worry families and policymakers alike. It also allows the Legislature to clearly define the value of their expenditures - as investments in opportunities for the people who live and work here.

Consider that in FY 2016, the state appropriation will provide approximately 34 percent of a resident student's cost of education, causing our universities to operate at a deficit for Arizona resident students. That support level is down from 41 percent in FY 2015 and from recent levels that exceeded 70 percent in 2008 and from nearly 90 percent in 1998. The new model sets a state support goal of 50 percent, recognizing that students and the state alike benefit from higher education and should share in the cost. The state funding request that accompanies the new model would move resident student funding to 38 percent in FY 2016, allowing the state to take a significant step toward that commitment.

We have a constitutional duty to guarantee access to public education at the highest levels, the purpose for which our universities were created at our state's founding. But the values and virtues of public higher education will only endure to the extent we uphold them and make them available to students. In April, Gov. Ducey noted the critical role the universities play in developing talent for our state and, in recognition of state funding limitations, challenged us to develop a sustainable finance plan that counted on the state as one of many investors. This plan responds to that call. Moreover, it represents a serious and significant shift of intention and action to re-position our university system for long-term viability. With its adoption, it will become one of the most meaningful ways to assure opportunity for all in Arizona.

Let's put this plan into action.