Payson’s hopes for striking a deal with Arizona State University to build a four-year college campus in town will likely get crushed if the Legislature adopts a radical overhaul of higher education funding in the state, say advocates.
SB 1115, which last week passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee, would fund colleges through student vouchers, eliminate the Arizona Board of Regents and set up separate boards for each of the existing state universities.
Reaction from other lawmakers has so far been tepid, but if the measure does make it through the Senate and then the House, it would impose far-reaching changes.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said that if the proposal advances it would likely kill the town’s hopes for striking a deal with ASU to build a branch campus here for up to 6,000 students.
However, he said if the bill did dismantle the deal between ASU and Payson, the town would seek an agreement with another college.
SB 1115 “destroys the community college system and it destroys the university system,” said Evans. “I’m not against a voucher system per-se, but this isn’t well thought out. Basically, it means ASU can’t go forward with anything — it freezes all capital spending. This really illustrates the hazards of these last-minute, strike-all bills.”
However, Evans said other universities remain “in the wings” and that most elements of the plan to build a college here would survive a change in partners.
Plans with other universities “are on hold and discussions have been on hold because we signed an agreement we would not discuss a campus with any other institutions until they or we decide that the ASU/Payson plan can’t go forward.”
SB 1115 proposes a sweeping reorganization of higher education. SB 1115’s backers say it would ensure that state funding follows the students rather than flowing to the institutions. It also seeks to foster competition for those students by breaking up the single governing body that now coordinates the programs at the three universities.
However, critics have said the bill would result in the costly duplication of administrative structures, chaos in planning and a costly duplication of programs.
The bill doesn’t specify the size of the proposed vouchers, but does include many weirdly specific details — like a requirement that all college and university classrooms display an American flag and a copy of the Constitution.
Sen. Sylvia Allen, whose 5th District includes all of Rim Country, said “it’s a very interesting idea. I’ve read it. But that doesn’t mean I understand every aspect of it. It’s a huge policy shift. I did vote to let it out of committee so we can continue the discussion. What this does is to open this into one huge, big competition. Right now, the board of regents kind of holds things back. Of course, the board of regents doesn’t like the idea because it does away with them. But I think you’re going to see some competition — start operating like a business.”
However, Gila Community College Board Member Thomas Loeffler wrote Allen a letter appealing to her to oppose the bill when it comes to the Senate floor.
“SB 1115 is ill-conceived and does not really attempt to address the need to find better ways to fund higher education,” he wrote.
“I would rather see the Legislature review and study the final report from the Higher Education Finance Committee when it is released. SB 1115 should never see the light of day. Do not let it advance. Abolishing the board of regents would not substantially develop more competition among the current universities as the supporters suggest. Developing internal competition will achieve more in raising the bar.
“Developing a Board of Trustees for each university and college will only create a duplication of services and increase cost with nothing to show for it.”
The bill would establish separate governing boards for Northern Arizona University, the University of Arizona and Arizona State University.
The bill would also turn ASU’s polytechnic campus in Mesa into a separate university, with its own governing board. ASU would retain control over its campus in Glendale, known as ASU West. The bill would leave the door open to the relatively easy establishment of other colleges with their own boards throughout the state.
Sen. Allen said she didn’t think the dramatic change would hurt the prospects for an ASU campus in Payson. “Kenny is trying to move to a business model. The way Kenny wants to do that (public-private) partnership is quite wonderful. But if this is going to hurt Payson’s plans, then Kenny has to be sure to tell me.”
In fact, Evans predicted SB 1115 would doom two years of negotiations just when ASU and Payson seemed ready to close the deal. The last significant hurdle under current law was a marketing study now under way.
He said SB 1115 would wreck the current system, but leave crucial details vague.
“So do I get the same voucher if I take 20 credits of really hard-core classes as if I take 12 units of basket weaving?” asked Evans.
“I don’t think that’s what they were trying to do, but as it’s written now, it does allow that. I just have a hard time understanding how something of this significance could not be deferred to get a lot more public input.”
He said he hoped the idea would die before it could pass through additional committees and pass both houses.
Critics of the universities have criticized an ASU six-year graduation rate that remains below 55 percent and insist the universities are top heavy, spending too much on administration and not enough on classes. They maintain that only a radical change in the financing system will force the universities to compete for students and make programs more efficient.
Gov. Jan Brewer has already proposed a 20 percent cut in state support for the universities and a 46 percent cut in state support for community colleges in 2011-12, to save the state about $65 million. Those cuts come on top of two years of sizeable cuts already enacted. Cuts in the university budgets have totaled some $400 million since 2008.
The board of regents has responded by approving layoffs and effectively doubling tuition, moving the state from the bottom third nationally for tuition to the top third.
The regents recently announced a plan to increase the number of degrees the state can award by 2020 by about 50 percent, with a primary focus on developing lower-cost college campuses. That includes setting up campuses like the one Payson has proposed, which would not include expensive graduate programs and create a public-private partnership to keep the costs to about half the level of ASU’s Tempe campus.
Both ASU and Payson officials had been sounding optimistic about the chances the Payson plan will move forward before SB 1115 advanced out of committee.
Now, Evans said almost anything can happen, in the current climate. “I don’t know. I don’t know. My worry is that there is such an almost-panic to try to do something significant that doing something right gets pushed to the back of the line.”