The Fool In The Swamp; The Boy With The Rope

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A bright fellow with a rope tied to his belt on a hike through the swamp finds a fat fool floundering about in the quicksand. Just back from his Scout meeting where he was urged to “do a good turn daily,” the bright young man ties one end of the rope to a big cypress tree and throws the other end to the oaf in the quicksand.

The rope falls a foot short. The big fellow flounders briefly, then says: “throw it closer.”

Eagerly, the young fellow pulls in the rope and makes another toss. The rope lands on the fool’s shoulder. The knucklehead looks confused.

“Throw it in my hands,” he says, holding up his huge, muddy paws.

Question: How long should our hero keep throwing the rope?

The backers of the plan to build a university campus in Payson at no cost to the state of Arizona now find themselves confronting this question.

Please note — in this analogy, the fool in question is the Arizona Legislature, not Arizona State University.

That’s because the backers of the Payson campus are offering Arizona a brilliant solution to one of the state’s most pressing problems: Ensure our students can afford a college education so Arizona doesn’t sink into economic quicksand.

In the past three years, the state Legislature has taken a wrecking ball to the state’s three universities, while letting the community college system starve.

Arizona remains almost uniquely dependent on our three big universities. Most states have both public universities offering a full range of graduate degrees and a system of state colleges, which focus on providing bachelor’s degrees at a much lower per-student cost. But in Arizona, the Legislature never bothered to fund that middle level of state colleges.

As a result, we have only three big public universities and a handful of private colleges. We could afford such a bare-bones system when the universities were charging tuition rates of $2,500 per year. But now that they’re charging $10,000 per year, we’ve sent even our brightest students to wander about in the swamp without so much as a lantern.

In addition, Arizona provides a much smaller subsidy for each of those college students than almost any of states with which we compete for business. Arizona has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, highest high school dropout rates, and lowest college graduation rates.

Please note: A recent study by the American Institutes for Research concluded that students with a bachelor’s degree earn between $230,000 and $550,000 more in the course of their careers. That yields an extra $50,000 to $150,000 in taxes. Taxpayer subsidies for college degrees range from $8,000 to $100,000 — with an average of about $60,000, the study concluded.

In Arizona, the state payment per student at the three universities has shrunk to between $896 and $6,598 per student — depending on the university. The actual per-student subsidy is larger when you consider spending on infrastructure, but still remains far below the national average.

The backers of a Payson campus have offered the state Legislature a model for the development of a state college system, with tuition closer to $5,000 than $10,000 per student. The innovative public-private partnership would use private investments and donations to build the campus and generate economic spinoffs that will lower the bottom line cost for the university.

The governor’s office, Legislature and top officials at ASU should have rushed to test that model here for use throughout the state. Instead, they’ve done nothing but obstruct and frustrate.

The most determined backers of the Payson campus have persisted despite long odds and maddening stumbling blocks thrown into their path by the very institutions with the most to gain.

We admire their struggle — not just for Payson, but for students throughout the state.

But now the Boy Scout on the edge of the swamp might have to find someone else to save. Make no mistake: Payson will wind up with a university — with all its benefits for the local economy.

The most passionate backers of the plan had hoped to plant a seed that would grow into a state college system — to the immense benefit of all of our children. Instead, they may have to offer the formidable benefits of the public-private partnership to one of a host of private colleges eager to set up shop in a state where the Legislature has abandoned its public universities.

But if the fool in the swamp refuses to grasp the rope, perhaps it’s time to move on.

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