Via Becky Pallack, the state House Appropriations Committee heard from the university presidents last week regarding the seemingly-perpetual problem of dramatic decreases in state funding to higher education. As usual, the outlook is dim to dismal:
The JLBC analyst said the $200 million rollovers will continue at the universities. (If you’re not familiar, this is sort of like your boss skipping a paycheck and saying he’ll pay you later. Every payday.) The analyst also pointed out that the universities were expempt from the state’s required furlough days, but starting next year those rules apply to the universities too. (So, university employees should expect furloughs next year.)
Various state officials chimed in with the usual outsider incredulity, sidling up against that indulgent notion that this is a simple problem with a simple answer. For example:
Rep. Russ Jones (R-Yuma) wanted to know how NAU saw a 28 percent increase in enrollment but only a 19 percent increase in its all-fund budget. The analyst explained that the legislature appropriates general funds money, the Arizona Board of Regents sets tuition pricing, and NAU decides how many students to enroll.
This is an interesting study in what is always a convoluted and political consideration — how much money the universities have, where they get it, and what they do with it is, as they say, “a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous.” But even the explanation that each university decides how many students to enroll isn’t exactly true — Governor Brewer has mandated the number of degrees she would like the state to produce by 2020, providing another layer to, as the Dude says, a very complicated case. Rep. Jones’ question provides a compelling argument for having three separate Board of Regents for the three universities, offering among other benefits a closer relationship between those who set enrollment and those who set tuition (an argument my colleague has been making for years). Other legislators were similarly incredulous:
Rep. Justin Olson (R) wanted to know whether the universities have experienced any actual cuts because their all-funds budgets are actually higher. The analyst explained that the universities have taken a 19 percent cut in state support, but their overall budgets are higher because of tuition increases and other kinds of fund-raising.
Considering that the amount each student pays to attend Arizona universities has more than doubled in the last handful of years, the universities have certainly “experienced actual cuts” as a result of the decrease in state funding, though the number of the total fund budgets may be higher. Pallack reports that ASU’s President Michael Crow fielded most of the questions, including this one:
Committee chairman John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills) wanted to know why ASU doesn’t just raise entrance standards to create a de facto enrollment cap. Crow said ASU is being more selective and said “we’ve been rejecting more students than ever.” Crow said ASU is asking a lot of students to start at a community college and then transfer to ASU.
While it may be true that ASU is “rejecting more students than ever,” this is an irrelevant point to Kavanagh’s question unless ASU has been rejecting a greater a greater percentage of applicants than in past years. A larger number of students apply for ASU every year, so of course they will be “rejecting more students than ever” — but are still letting in something like 80% of applicants. Rep. Kavanagh’s question presents an interesting proposal for the universities, one they have still not satisfactorily answered.
The discussion Pallack chronicles between Arizona lawmakers on the subject of higher education in the state provides an interesting look at the way these issues are considered far from campus. Naturally the zombie horse of the “as nearly free as possible” consideration was trotted out for yet another lap around the circus ring:
Rep. Kavanagh said the phrase “as nealy free as possible” in the state constitution is unclear…Kavanagh asked Shelton what percentage of UA students don’t pay tuition. Shelton said he thought it was 15-20 percent of Arizona resident students. Kavanagh, commenting on tuition, said “feel free to soak the out-of-state” students.
Though this is not the sense in which the phrase is usually considered, Rep. Kavanagh is correct that the clause does not immediately appear to include out-of-state students:
Section 6. The university and all other state educational institutions shall be open to students of both sexes, and the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible.
Yet it may not be admirable policy for the state to attempt to offset the decrease in state support to the universities by dramatically raising the cost of non-resident tuition. The portion of students at Arizona universities who are from out of state — California offering the greatest number — may start to look elsewhere for college options if Arizona tuition is to rise dramatically, as Crow noted: “Out-of-state tuition prices are set by the market, Crow said, and ASU is ‘at or near its elasticity point’ for that pricing.”
Though it is just a discussion at this point, Rep. Kavanagh’s assertion that universities should “soak” out-of-state students is contrary to the missions of more than a few student-advocacy organizations. Though out-of-state students are dismally under-represented in almost all aspects of the conversation surrounding higher education in Arizona, these non-residents pay the $2 Arizona Students Association fee just like everyone else. Kavanagh’s attempts to pass decreases in state funding onto tuition-paying students is decidedly contrary to that organization’s mission to keep higher education in Arizona “affordable and accessible” — and if Kavanagh’s assertion becomes anything more than discussion, might warrant attention and, one hopes, condemnation from that organization, purportedly the voice of all students in Arizona.