A bill that would allow Eastern Arizona College (EAC) in Safford to offer four-year degrees could complicate efforts to build a low-cost, four-year ASU campus in Payson.
State Rep. Bill Konopnicki, whose fifth district also includes Rim Country, last week introduced HB 2147, which would allow EAC to offer four-year degrees, effectively competing with the three state universities that now have a near monopoly on four-year degrees in the state.
“We’ve priced the cost of education out of the reach of most of the citizens of Arizona,” said Konopnicki, referring to the rapid rise in tuition at the three public universities. “We need some options to provide alternate baccalaureate degrees.”
That same thought lies behind Payson’s effort to convince ASU to build a branch campus in Payson, where the tuition would be about 50 percent lower than at ASU’s campuses in the Valley.
To further complicate matters, EAC currently administers and holds the credential for Gila Community College, which is the state’s only provisional community college. EAC controls Gila Community College’s budget and personnel and charges a 25 percent overhead fee on everything Gila Community College spends. As a result of its provisional status, GCC gets just half as much state aid per student as all the other community colleges.
Backers of establishing an ASU campus in Payson are pushing for a change in state law that would allow ASU to assume EAC’s role in running the Payson campus of Gila Community College.
Konopnicki said his proposal to allow EAC to offer a four-year degree isn’t directly related to the status of Gila Community College and the low-cost ASU campus.
“It doesn’t directly relate, but it could,” he said. “I think it’s a parallel approach. We don’t have closure on either one. We don’t know if ASU is going to actually come to Payson. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I don’t think anyone does.”
However, he stressed the need to find a way to make higher education affordable.
“One of the most disheartening things we’re dealing with,” said Konopnicki, “is that kids who are graduating from high school right now are going to have less education than their parents did.
“I’ve got that bill out there with the idea of putting some pressure on the universities,” he concluded.
Despite a constitutional requirement to keep tuition “as nearly free as possible,” tuition at the three Arizona universities has risen dramatically in recent years. Once among the lowest in the nation, this year a $1,200 “economic recovery surcharge” pushed tuition at ASU to more than 12 percent above the national average — about $7,400 annually. Tuition at the University of Arizona rose to $7,176 and at Northern Arizona University to $6,555.
Nationally, the average tuition at public, four-year universities rose to $6,585 this year.
This year’s surcharge came on top of the regular 3 percent to 14 percent increases imposed in December.
More than half of Arizona university students now graduate in debt, with an average total of $17,500.
Konopnicki’s bill could allow EAC to add targeted four-year degrees to its offerings, with an emphasis on areas of study popular in rural areas of the state.
“The idea would be to limit the offerings to certain degrees — elementary education, or business, or nursing or law enforcement. Just five to seven degrees, as a limited test. My belief is that we could do it for half or a third of what it would be at the university. This is just to give citizens of rural Arizona an appropriate B.A. that they couldn’t get any other way.”
The backers of an ASU branch campus in Payson have made a similar argument for a 1,500- to 6,000-student campus nestled among the trees with an emphasis on alternative energy, rural health care and sustainability.
Backers say that an innovative public-private partnership to build and operate the facilities at a lower cost and the lack of the expensive overhead and research programs for facilities-intensive degrees like biology would enable the campus to operate at less than half the per-student cost of ASU.