Huge revamp of higher ed envisioned; STEM education a focus

December 1, 2009

By hammersmith

Huge revamp of higher ed envisioned

$1.5M to kick-start changes in Arizona aimed at lower-cost, ‘no-frills’ degrees

Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services, 11.23.2009


PHOENIX — Arizona is getting a $1.5 million grant as the first step toward creating “no frills” programs within the university system where students can get degrees for less than what they now cost.

The plan is to have the first of those lower-cost baccalaureate degree programs in place in Maricopa County next year. Other campuses would follow, with a full system in place by 2020.

The grant, to be announced today, also will:

• Start Arizona down the path of creating two new regional universities, one in Prescott and another in Yuma, in partnership with existing community colleges.

• Require new cooperation between community colleges and universities, allowing students to get their four-year degrees at a community college campus.

• Allow the three existing universities to explore whether to deliver courses jointly at common locations.

State officials also want to use the money to come up with — and persuade legislators to enact — a new method for funding higher education. It would specifically be geared to rewarding universities for the number of students who graduate, not simply the number who enroll.

Money is coming from the Lumina Foundation, a private foundation that lists as its mission the expansion of access to postsecondary education. Arizona is one of seven states sharing in $9.1 million being awarded.

The move for more affordable higher education comes after a series of sharp increases in tuition at the state’s three universities, including double-digit hikes for this new school year and a 39.1 percent boost in 2003. Incoming freshmen who are Arizona residents now pay more than $6,000 a year in tuition and fees.

The Arizona Board of Regents, in its own Vision 2020 Plan, hopes to increase the number of bachelor degree graduates each year by 50 percent, from 19,100 to 28,800. But one impediment, according to the application for the grant submitted by the regents, is that the state has a “productivity challenge.”

One factor: The state will experience dramatic population growth by 2020. “But it will occur among the least-educated segment of our population,” the proposal states.

At the same time, while Arizona ranks second in the nation in the number of college-educated adults coming here from other states, their degrees are not in the so-called “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering and math — “where labor market trends indicate jobs will be needed to fuel Arizona’s economic recovery.”

The grant application also says that Arizona relies almost exclusively on public institutions to produce baccalaureate and higher degrees.

But no colleges are devoted simply to providing those degrees. That means the responsibility falls to the state’s three research universities, “a costlier model than is achieved by focusing more narrowly on undergraduate instruction.”

The regents’ application conceded the major shift in how higher education will be delivered in Arizona did not come easy. In some ways, it says, it was forced on the schools.

“The budget crisis has been so severe as to jolt institutional consciousness into new fiscal realities,” it says.

Lawmakers, looking for places to trim the budget, have taken money from universities with increasing frequency. And higher education is not getting the same priority it used to.

In 2000, university funding made up 13 percent of the state budget; by this year, although the absolute amount was up by 20 percent, that share of the pie had slipped to 10 percent.

“Piecemeal efforts or nibbling around the margins will not get the overall job done,” the grant application states. “Business as usual will yield inadequate results, and the status quo is unacceptable.”

The proposals for lower costs are centered around the state developing several colleges offering bachelor degree programs in high-demand areas and at lower cost. Each of these colleges, which would be part of the universities, would have from 1,000 to 3,000 students.

Karen Nicodemus, former president of Cochise College, said the idea is to have colleges that are serving individual communities and offering a limited number of degrees.

She said these programs would be less expensive because students “are not coming to the campus for the full array of programs.”

Nicodemus, who will serve as coordinator of the grant program, said, though, that students still would have access to counselors and similar services.

Potentially more significant from a student perspective, tuition at these colleges would be linked to the federal Pell grant, a move that could prevent sharp year-over-year increases.