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Properly funding Arizona’s universities is part of a social contract

Have you been to the doctor lately? Called your lawyer? Driven on a road? Walked into a multistory building? Used a cell phone? Read a blog online?

Certainly you have. Nearly all of the people and things you rely on every day to make your life better, easier, healthier, safer or informative likely stem from someone who received a university education.

Few of us can build a road or a shopping center, so we need engineers and architects. Few of us can build and program a computer, so we need computer and software engineers. Few of us can argue a case before the bar, so we need a lawyer. Few of us can diagnose cancer or sew up a wound, so we need doctors and nurses.

Nearly all of the professionals we need in life we train at universities. That’s why we subsidize higher education through the federal and state governments. It’s a social contract.

But lately, we, the public, haven’t been living up to our end of the bargain.

Per student funding for higher education in Arizona, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it has been since Gen. Westmoreland was telling President Johnson he could see the light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam.

For every $5.50 spent by a state university, only a $1 comes from the state, which calls into question whether our state universities should be called such. The majority of the rest comes from student tuition.

There’s a weak argument that says that since it’s the students who directly benefit from a university education through a lifetime of higher wages, it’s the students who should bear the lion’s share of the cost.

Perhaps. But a nation that needs highly trained and skilled workers needs to play a role in creating those workers by making it easier for them to obtain that training. If the nation needs 100,000 new engineers a year but only 50,000 people a year can afford to get the training to become one, the nation can’t grow as needed. Do we really want to be a nation that has to import our engineers, doctors and scientists from China and India in addition to everything else we import from them?

At yesterday’s Arizona Board of Regents meeting, finance committee chairwoman Regent Ann Mariucci explained to the board how efficient and cost effective Arizona’s universities had become.

She explained how over the past five years the Regents have been running the universities like a business, collecting data that demonstrates how cost cutting and reforms had made the universities leaner and more accountable. Her numbers showed how each university’s “price point” (tuition) compared in value to similar universities across the country, most of which cost much more than Arizona’s universities to attend.

By her argument, the cost of higher education in Arizona was a great bargain.

There were two targets – the Legislature and students - for her presentation (other than the board, which was about to vote on tuition increases at all three state universities, the 15th consecutive year of at least one of the three universities raising tuition).

For the Legislature, her presentation essentially said the state’s contribution was just right and the state was getting a good return on its investment.

For students, the subtext of Mariucci’s comments was for those complaining about a doubling of tuition over the past five years. Essentially, “quit your whining, this could be costing you a whole lot more.”

But Regent Mark Killian, even though he voted for all three tuition increases, wasn’t buying what Mariucci was selling.

In a sedate though passionate explanation of his vote, he argued that the framers of the Arizona constitution understood the social contract between the public and its professionals, which is why they included the clause that higher education should be provided by the state “as nearly free as possible.”

Killian, as he did in 2011 when the Regents OK’d 20 percent tuition increases, said the state must find a solution to the funding problem and give students some relief. He offered no solution of his own, only that the state should try to find one.

In 2008, right before the housing bubble popped in Arizona, the state budgeted $1 billion for universities. This year it budgeted $700 million. In 2008, the University of Arizona received $431 million from the state. This year it got $268 million.

But while the state was cutting budgets to deal with plummeting revenue caused by the Great Recession, the universities were adding students through an aggressive Regents’ mandated plan to double the number of degrees conferred by Arizona universities by 2020.

According to a Georgetown University report cited on the Regents’ website, by 2018 61 percent of all jobs will require some postsecondary schooling. And nearly half of all jobs will require a college degree.

The Regents have tasked the universities to meet that need yet the state is giving them less money to accomplish it. Instead, the state is requiring students to pay for the state’s need to have a skilled workforce.

That makes no sense. More than just unfair, it’s self-defeating because it requires students to obtain government money from other sources – grants and scholarships – to pay for it. Or, as is more likely these days, to take out government-backed student loans that gift students with a massive pile of debt on graduation day (A debt that must be paid back, it can’t be eradicated through bankruptcy).

Though the Great Recession has passed, its effects still ripple through the state economy. Because of that, state budget writers still have fishhooks in their pockets – there’s little desire to increase spending, or, horror of horrors, raise a tax, for education.

Rather, many conservative members of the Legislature are convinced that the path to prosperity can only be achieved through low business taxes and few business regulations.

Perhaps. But year after year the state’s business leaders have also said an educated workforce is the bedrock of that path.

You don’t get something for nothing. If we want a prosperous future in Arizona we need to pay for it and that means properly funding K-12 schools and universities.

If the money doesn’t exist in the current budget, then the Legislature needs to raise it. If that means a tax, then so be it.

Nearly as free as possible should mean just what it says.

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