The Arizona Board of Regents is working on plans to offer lower-priced college degrees that could include starting a fourth university or even buying a community college and converting it into a four-year school.
The regents are under pressure from state legislators and Gov. Jan Brewer to come up with alternatives for students who want something more affordable than a traditional four-year degree at a research university.
The idea of providing alternatives is one that the regents have mulled for some time. But the concept is taking on new urgency because of recent state-funding cuts to higher education and sharp tuition hikes at the three state universities: Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University.
Ernie Calderón, incoming president of the state Board of Regents, said that “everything is on the table” over the next several months as the regents discuss alternatives.
One option could be to buy an existing college site, such as one of the community colleges in the Maricopa Community Colleges system, to create a four-year school, Calderón said. Another option is to make NAU’s Yuma-branch campus a separate university.
An idea involving several regional state colleges that offer four-year degrees with no research component also is being floated. In addition, ASU President Michael Crow is working on a “Colleges at ASU” plan that would involve partnering with municipalities to develop colleges with university-quality instruction at a lower cost. The approach would be similar to how ASU entered downtown Phoenix, where the city fronted tax money for buildings.
In June, the presidents of the three state universities are expected to recommend specific ways to provide more choices for lower-cost, university-quality education. Later this year, Calderón said, the regents will unveil a list of options for input by the governor and public. The regents hope to make a decision by December.
It’s too soon to attach a price tag. And other details are unclear, such as tuition costs and what majors would be offered.
Arizona has several private, for-profit colleges, but not many four-year public colleges or universities compared with some other states. The state has three universities that educate about 122,500 students a year. A network of community colleges offers certificates and two-year degrees; some programs allow students to earn up to three years’ worth of credits before transferring to the universities. Community colleges don’t offer four-year degrees, and efforts to change state law to allow them to do so have been unsuccessful.
Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, chairman of the state House Education Committee, said he has been approached by Maricopa Community Colleges about the idea of creating a “junior-senior college” where students in the community-college system could go after two years and earn a bachelor’s degree.
Crandall said it’s possible all the ideas will work.
“It would be wonderful if we thought that big,” he said. “We’ll have to see what happens.”
The movement to restructure higher education comes as the state lags the national average in the percentage of adults with four-year degrees.
In Arizona, 25 percent of adults who are 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 28 percent nationally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
U.S. Census and other surveys show that people with bachelor’s degrees have higher lifetime earnings, access to better health care and higher savings levels.