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Arizona’s politicians are pushing our public universities away from serving the students who need and could benefit from a university education most.

As the state disinvests in higher education, our universities compensate by raising tuition.

They recruit more out-of-state students, who pay much higher tuition than Arizonans do.

And they recruit more upper-middle income students, who require less, if any, financial aid.

So in a state in which a quarter of our children live in poverty, a state with relatively low average household income and a low tax base, our politicians are deterring our universities from serving the students who could benefit most.

And we all suffer. These policies hurt not only the students who lose out on this opportunity, but also our economy.

They’re limiting our ability to expand the middle class, the tax base, and all the social and cultural benefits that go with higher levels of educational attainment.

Throughout our country’s history, cities have understood that a college or university is an investment that benefits the whole community.

Higher education is a public good, not just a private good.

Why don’t our legislators and governor understand what every student and family understand?

Higher education is not just a cost to be cut; it is an investment that pays rich dividends.

When the economy is bad, demand for higher education increases. Students find a way to make the investment, knowing the monies they lay down will come back to them many times over.

For our part in the universities, why don’t we understand? Higher education is not just about prestige and revenue generation. It is about enhancing the quality of life of the people, communities, state, regions and nation we serve.

We, too, are in a bad cycle. Our aspirations to be a top 10 when we are a top 13 public university (as at the University of Arizona), our building of incentives into presidential contracts for movement up the U.S. News & World Report rankings (as at Arizona State University) are driving us in the wrong direction.

We concentrate more and more on obtaining research monies and on attracting a more restricted range of (higher income) students, because that is the path to greater prestige and higher rankings.

But is that what Arizona and the country need, particularly in a time of the greatest economic collapse in almost a century?

Do the people of Pima County and Arizona really care whether the UA is a top 10 or a top 15 or a top 20 public university?

Do the people of Maricopa County and Arizona really care whether ASU is ranked No. 121 (as it was this year) versus No. 124 (as it was last year) in U.S. News’ “Best National Universities” rankings?

I think not. Nor should they. Why don’t we in the universities understand that?

As I wrote in a Feb. 11 open letter to the president and Congress, “In these times, shouldn’t we be moving as institutions and as a profession beyond an individually focused, self-seeking orientation to a more socially focused, public good serving orientation? Shouldn’t we be driven by a sense of social responsibility in the work we do, for fostering the broad revival of the regions in which we are situated?

“Wouldn’t that be the basis of a new social compact of social responsibility between the academy and society, in which the fulcrum is the social commitment of the academy to the vitality of the society, and the social commitment of society to the vitality of the academy?

“That would be a real transformation, in public policy and in professional practice. That would be an agenda to lay a new foundation for rebuilding America by rebuilding our institutional and intellectual capacity in the academy.”

The intellectual capacity and capital of colleges and universities, their facilities and their faculties and staff, are at the heart of our state and country’s recovery in performing a public mission for the broader good.

It is time the state invested more in the universities than in a narrow, ideological commitment to cost-cutting.

In turn, it is time that universities invested more in the state than in the pursuit of a narrow, ideological commitment to status aspiration.

It is time to break these bad cycles and to truly transform our focus.

Gary Rhoades is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. E-mail: grhoades@aaup.org

It is time that universities invested more in the state than in the pursuit of a narrow, ideological commitment to status aspiration.

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