Arizona higher education panel examines funding, philosophy

Peter Likins moderates a panel discussion on higher education  in Arizona sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and Hadassah Southern Arizona, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on April 26. (Simon Rosenblatt)
Peter Likins moderates a panel discussion on higher education in Arizona sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and Hadassah Southern Arizona, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on April 26. (Simon Rosenblatt)

Our system of higher education hasn’t changed in the last 60 years, University of Arizona President Emeritus Peter Likins said at a breakfast and panel discussion April 26 at the Tucson Jewish Community

Center. As the moderator of the discussion on “The Future of Higher Education in Arizona,” when he asked the question, “Is the Current Model Sustainable?” the six panelists answered with a qualified “no.”

The early morning event, which was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Jewish Community Relations Council and Hadassah Southern Arizona, drew around 100 people.

“The model is unsustainable. Period,” said Joaquin Ruiz, Ph.D., UA vice president for innovation and strategy. “We are at a perfect storm if we believe in Jefferson’s model of democracy. Education has been the great equalizer in our society. If the burden of funding is on students, that can’t happen.”

The Arizona constitution says that “higher education should be provided as free as possible,” noted former state legislator Tim Bee, now associate vice president for state relations in the UA External Relations Office. But the cost of higher education has shifted from being born by the entire citizenry to being born by consumers of the system, he said, adding that “Arizona is only one of three states that doesn’t provide financial aid from the state” for public university students.

From culture to technology, “so many things are different now,” said Rick Myers, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents. “How can we remain relevant?” But the conversation quickly returned to the big question. How can we adequately fund higher education in Arizona?

Only around 15 percent of funding for higher education comes from the state, said Rep. Ethan Orr, Legislative District 9, who pointed out that “the total state budget is $27 billion and we only control about a third of it.”

Representing the student perspective, Katy Murray, UA student body president, lamented next year’s tuition increase of 3 percent. She also addressed student involvement in planning. “Looking at the UA revamping its entire strategic plan,” she said, “students need to be part of the plan. What would get us to stay here?”

Another important issue is enticing local high school graduates to aspire to higher education. “If I have a college degree I’m going to earn 90 percent more,” said Orr. “We need to show that value to high school students.”

In recent years, “great accolades and acclaim have been given to community colleges,” noted C.J. Karamargin, vice chancellor for public information and federal government relations at Pima Community College, and previously communications director for former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. President Barack Obama has mentioned the success of community colleges in all of his State of the Union addresses, he said, “yet at the same time state funding has dropped dramatically.”

“There’s the larger philosophical question — should everyone go to college? The transmission of knowledge takes many forms,” said Karamargin. “We have graduates of other universities coming to [PCC] to learn about auto mechanics, massage therapy [and other skills] to get work.”

And then there’s the question, who benefits from higher education? Is it for the public good or the private good? If it’s for the public good, then it’s essential to expand knowledge in society and contribute to the economy, said Myers, but if it’s for the private good, paying for higher education is on “the backs of the parents.” He noted that only 25 percent of Arizonans have an associate’s degree or higher, and that our per capita income is one of the lowest in the country.

“It’s a shame on our state that we don’t have a financial aid system,” said Orr, who serves on the higher education committee in the legislature. “We’re working on it.” Another concern is that private institutions have 35 percent more faculty with doctorates, he said. “It’s a travesty that over time the best faculty will be drawn away from our public universities.”

At the same time, said Ruiz, “when you have a professor in front of a certain number of students, 98 percent of the institution’s costs are in salaries.”

Enter the Internet. A new trend in higher education is MOOCS — massive open online classes — and they’re usually free. How do these courses, often from the top universities, overlap with attending in person? “I can get a Ph.D. online [by using] 95 percent of my life experience and writing a paper,” said Orr. On the other hand, attaining a degree or “credentialing doesn’t mean you know anything. You have a piece of paper that says ‘I’m smart.’ You may have jumped through some hoops to get it. Broadly, we have to push back on the trend that says a piece of paper means I know something.”

Will there be online college graduation certificates that are valid in the future of higher education?

“We must dramatically increase our use of technology,” said Bee, “but that would be a dramatic difference in the experience” of attending college. “Education is a personal journey,” affirmed Orr. “Too much of that has been lost.”

On the other hand, said Myers, the traditional model of students sitting in a lecture hall “makes everyone go at the same pace. See a lecture on the Internet and come to class to solve problems,” encouraging creativity and entrepreneurship. “Part of the college experience is internships, research options, working with professors, working in labs,” said Murray, “not just taking courses. I think the online [learning] component will be huge, but students still need the opportunity for mentorship.”

Looking to state budgetary problems involving a university education, the cost of incarceration has grown very rapidly in Arizona while the state’s contribution to education has decreased. “It’s definitely more expensive to incarcerate someone at $25,000 [annually] than to spend $15,000 on higher education,” noted Bee. Karamargin addressed that philosophical issue: “Look at the educational level of people who are incarcerated. That goes to the cost of education as a common good” that may prepare people for better jobs and quality of life.

And quality of life in the age of the Internet was clearly on the minds of other panelists. “We used to be a country full of ignorant people because they didn’t go to university,” said Ruiz. “Now we’re a country of misinformed people who look on the Internet for everything. That’s more dangerous.

“What makes this country as great as it is, and I’m an immigrant,” he said, “is its diversity. When you go to college your eyes are wide open. You start looking at the world in a different way. We have some danger of silo-izing our society and that would be a disaster.”

­With the recent economic recession, “by the time students get to university it’s all about me. How to get a job is what they care about,” said Karamargin. “Students are saddled with unbelievable student loans.” Likins concurred, affirming “a dramatic change in our society. There’s been a very dramatic shift since my youth when higher education wasn’t treated as a private good. We’ve moved dramatically from the we to the me. In some sense that’s the fundamental problem.”