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Tuition hikes unconstitutional?

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

PHOENIX – Five simple words concerning college tuition in the Arizona Constitution are sparking confusion, angry debate and talk of lawsuits.

The words – that university instruction should be “as nearly free as possible” – have become a rallying cry for students protesting steep tuition hikes at the state universities.

The Arizona Board of Regents is weighing new tuition charges that it acknowledges would stir up new accusations that it is violating the constitution. The regents want to impose surcharges on top of tuition hikes approved for this fall.

Regents President Fred Boice said he expects the board will be challenged in court over tuition hikes because filing a lawsuit isn’t costly.

Boice said the regents are being forced to act because of an unprecedented $190 million cut in state funding to the state’s three universities.

At first, “as nearly free as possible” suggests the cost of education should be a state responsibility with students paying some of the costs. But the words “as possible” muddy the waters.

Students often interpret the phrase to mean tuition bills should be as low as possible or the state Legislature should pick up more of the tab so tuition bills stay low. The “as nearly free as possible” provision was added to the constitution nearly a century ago. In 1935, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that a state university could impose charges as long as they weren’t “excessive or other than reasonable.”

Arizona’s universities had low tuition and modest increases that kept them at or near the bottom for years.

Then in 2003, the regents raised tuition by 39 percent in one year, or $1,000 a year, while setting aside more than 14 percent of tuition revenue for financial aid, up from 8 percent.

Four students filed a lawsuit against the board and the Legislature in 2003, arguing they had violated the constitution. The lawsuit, Kromko vs. Arizona Board of Regents, filed by ex-state legislator John Kromko, reached the Arizona Supreme Court, where a four-judge panel in 2007 said the question was a political one, not a judicial one. Judges declined to address whether the tuition hike violated the state constitution. The ruling gave the regents more leverage in justifying tuition hikes. Since 2004, they have raised in-state tuition by up to 54 percent.

Tuition increases raise constitutional question

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