Arizona Wants To Kill Its Community Colleges

March 19th 2015

Aron Macarow

Earlier this month, the Arizona state legislature voted to completely de-fund two of the largest community college districts in the state. Five years ago, Maricopa and Pima Community College Districts received a combined $70 million in state dollars; now, they will get zero at a time when other states are looking to provide community college to their residents for free. (The proposed budget would also eliminate all funding in a third county, Pinal, bringing the total losses to $19 million over last year.) Smaller community college districts would still get state funding.

"It would appear the State of Arizona is about to turn its back on community colleges. It's hard to think of a more unfortunate development when we think about enhancing individual opportunity and social progress," said American Council on Education's Terry Hartle of the decision. 

The new budget proposal also gives the impression of making the monetary shortfall permanent. House Bill 2679 specifies that all community colleges in counties of more than 350,000 residents are ineligible for future state funding.

Sadly, these cuts aren't unexpected for administrators in Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal counties.

While other states have increased support for higher education, restoring Great Recession era budget cuts as the economy improves, Arizona has steadily pulled funding from community colleges since 2009.

Pima and Maricopa community college budget comparison from state of Arizona.

h/t InsideHigherEd

The state has also reduced spending per student by 30 percent in the last six years, while decreasing grants to a minuscule $47 per equivalent full-time student. (The national average is over $550.)

Completely divesting from community colleges, however, creates a new and alarmingly low bar. Hartle notes that although other states have looked to trim higher education spending to address budget shortfalls, Arizona is alone in such startlingly deep cuts. "Proposing to take away all support for community colleges as Arizona has really sets the standard," Hartle said to Inside Higher Ed.  

Were these cuts really necessary? 

It depends on who you ask. Are auto registration fees more or less important than supporting a statewide educational system? 

An analysis by the Arizona Republic's editorial board revealed that "the deeper higher-ed cuts appear to be tied to Republican legislative leaders' rejection of a $6 to $7 increase in auto registration fees at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The governor had planned to use the fees to increase state Department of Public Safety funding by $65 million. [...] [A]dditional cuts to the universities are being used to offset the loss of those higher DMV fees." 

Apparently, students and the future of the state are less important to the Republican-run legislature than appearance of avoiding a small tax increase. The buck actually gets passed onto consumers either way, though, because decreased state funding inevitably will lead to increased fees and tuition - either now or down the road.

Funding decreases are also made up by local residents in other, less obvious areas, like property taxes. 

Maricopa has already announced that they do not intend to increase property taxes or tuition... this year. (They do plan to put the hiring of needed, full-time faculty on hold, however, as well as other parts of their "student success initiative." Doesn't sound important, though, right?) Pima and Pinal have not yet clarified what actions they plan to take.

Looking at this chart from Pima Community College District, it's easy to see what a large chunk taxpayers are asked to silently shoulder by the state - and this doesn't reflect next fiscal year's budget, which generously gives zero dollars to Pima County.

Pima Community College District operational budget in Arizona.

Rather than having a tax increase on their hands, the Republican legislature would allow the community colleges themselves to play the villain. Forcing college boards to continue to come up with ways to keep the doors open - which frequently involve tuition increases, fee hikes, and higher property taxes - legislators shift the blame onto college districts. By voting against a DMV tax raise, the Arizona state legislature can pander to voters as being 'pro tax reform' while covertly passing the cost to keep community colleges running onto those same, unknowing constituents. 

Unsurprisingly, students themselves also directly foot the bill in the form of higher spending on student loans and other financial aid. 

As tuition and fees rise to cover a shortfall in operating budgets, students also have to shoulder more costs to attend school. Some cover this out-of-pocket, but more likely, many will increase their reliance on loans, grants, and work-study. 

The overall percentage of Pima Community College District's operating budget that comes from financial aid has increased sharply over the last 10 years - from around 15 percent in 2006 to over 30 percent in 2012. What will the green bar look like in 2016 with the loss of remaining state aid? 

Worst is that removing support from community colleges hits those that can least afford it the hardest. 

Community colleges are some of the most democratic and diverse in the country. Not only do they educate 1-in-18 Arizona residents at some point during the year, but nationally nearly half of U.S. undergrads attend a community college annually. Students in community colleges are also far more likely to be people of color, first-time college students, working people, or the economically disadvantaged. According to the Education Longitudinal Study, 44 percent of low-income students attend community college as their first college following high school - compared with only 15 percent of high-income students. Similarly, more than 1-in-3 college students from families in which no parent graduated from college chose community college as their first institution.

Besides serving these important populations, community colleges also function as a vital pipeline to better jobs and more financial security.

Despite the decreasing value of a bachelor's degree, young college graduates still out earn their peers with only a high school diploma by an average of 62 percent. 

This is one reason why President Obama recently made it a goal of his administration to make "two years of college as free and universal as high school." Community colleges are the vehicle of that plan, and states like Tennessee are already leading the way. (Tennessee passed the Tennessee Promise statewide in 2014 to provide two years of free community college or technical school to any qualifying student.)

Perhaps that's why we should be unsurprised that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was one of only three Republicans to stand with Senate Democrats to support the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act last year, which would have let millions of Americans refinance existing student loan debt at lower interest rates. (Both senators from Arizona voted no.)

It's time to stand up for our own interests. It's common sense for states to support education, especially community colleges which are more accessible to a wider range of Americans. If current state and federal legislators can't see that, we need to be voting for those that do.