Pity Tantalus, tormented by thirst in Hades by being made to stand neck deep water that dropped out of his reach every time he stooped to drink.
Sort of like working at one of the Arizona’s three universities trying to plan for the future and depending on the Arizona Legislature for a sip of water.
Caught between soaring enrollment and dwindling state support, the Arizona Board of Regents recently adopted an ambitious plan to accommodate a staggering 50-percent rise in projected enrollment by 2020. Now, Payson may play a role in solving that dilemma if ASU opts to partner with Payson in a new, energy-efficient, low-tuition campus here.
The Board of Regents’ “2020 Vision Strategic Plan” aims to both expand the system to accommodate those new students and bolster the state’s economy, as the state falls further and further behind competing states with a much better educated work force.
Ironically, dwindling state support for the existing campuses may actually provide one of the strongest arguments in favor of Payson’s innovative plan to provide Arizona State University with a built-from-scratch rural campus that can offer four-year degrees at half the cost of the same degree on the Tempe campus.
“What we’re dealing with is the historical absence of a state college system,” said Arizona Board of Regents Chairman Fred Duval.
“The strategic plan is based on a couple of premises: If you want more degrees, you’re going to have to lower the cost of delivering a degree. So if you want a state college system, you’re going to have to start off lean and mean.”
ASU Vice President of Development Richard Stanley said universities have to demonstrate to the Legislature they can meet the state’s educational needs efficiently and at a lower cost than simply expanding enrollment at the existing research-university campuses. ASU already has 70,000 students at its four campuses in the Valley.
“The argument we can make is that we can do this in a more efficient fashion in some of these programs like a Payson campus with a limited, focused list of undergraduate degrees,” said Stanley. “So we need to develop these alternatives because not every student needs or wants the level of comprehensiveness found at a research university.”
Research universities like the Tempe campus cost much more to operate, with a host of graduate programs and programs with expensive infrastructure, like science and biology degrees.
Although ASU has moved cautiously making a commitment to the Payson campus, advocates say the plan provides a well-timed answer to vexing questions now plaguing the university system in Arizona.
Most projections suggest Arizona will continue growing much faster than the rest of of the country once the economy rebounds. Between now and 2025, the state’s population is expected to rise by 86 percent — compared to a 25 percent increase nationally.
The strategic plan establishes an ambitious series of goals, which would simply enable the state to keep pace with anticipated growth in the next decade and to begin climbing out of the higher education cellar nationally. Not only must the universities make room for more students, they must also boost graduation rates — now among the worst in the country. Those goals include:
• Increase undergraduate enrollment from 100,000 to 156,000.
• Increase the number of BAs awarded annually from 19,000 to 36,000.
• Increase the freshman retention rate from 78 percent to 86 percent.
• Increase the number of community college transfers from 8,400 to 24,000.
• Increase the six-year graduation rate from 56 percent to 65 percent.
However, those ambitious goals have slammed head-on into fiscal realities.
In fact, deep budget cuts in the past two years have pushed the state’s universities to the edge.
Before the state budget collapsed, tuition at the state’s three big universities was in the bottom one-third of public universities nationwide and state taxpayers paid about half of the costs for each student — with the rest coming from tuition and various grants.
But in the past two years, tuition has risen to about $8,400 annually — putting the state in the top one-third for tuition nationwide. Moreover, the state Legislature now covers less than 20 percent of the universities costs.
In ASU’s case, the state cut funding by 23 percent despite an 11 percent enrollment increase. ASU’s state funding declined from $490 million to $375 million.
Even before the latest fiscal crunch, Arizona’s universities were struggling to keep up with other states.
As a result, increasingly desperate university advocates are seeking alternatives.