Arizona Community Colleges May Soon Offer Four-Year Degrees

By Jill Ryan
Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services
Published: Thursday, April 29, 2021 - 10:46am
Updated: Thursday, April 29, 2021 - 3:50pm

The Arizona Legislature has given final approval to a bill setting out the conditions for the state’s community colleges to start offering four-year degrees. On Wednesday, the Senate passed the legislation with a 24-6 vote, and the House already approved SB 1453. The only thing that remains now is a decision by Gov. Doug Ducey.

There’s been bipartisan support for this bill, but both parties share concerns about costs. 

Democratic Sen. Rosanna Gabaldón, who voted "no," says she sees this bill as duplicating existing efforts by universities.

“Arizona's already underfunding our public education, and I believe this bill will make our community colleges and public universities compete for that same funding. Why make this a solution looking for a problem?" Gabaldón said. 

Republican Sen. David Livingston voted "yes," but also voiced his concern that this bill may result in higher taxes. 

Ducey is likely to face a last-ditch effort by the Arizona Board of Regents, which has for at least 40 years fought any effort to infringe on what it sees as its turf as the governing body of the state's three universities.

Central to the multi-decade battle has been the question of both physical and fiscal accessibility of higher education.

Republican Rep. Becky Nutt has argued for years that the current system requires rural students who want four-year degree to leave their homes. That, she said, affect not only families but also undermines efforts to promote local economic development.

And Nutt said many community colleges already have buildings and other infrastructure in place that would allow them to start offering four-year degrees without new investment and without raising local taxes.

ABOR, by contrast, countered by saying there is no real need.

Larry Penley, chairman of the board, has argued that the universities already have working relationships with community colleges around the state, partnering in ways to offer four-year degrees. And he has told lawmakers there is reduced tuition for university courses that are taught on community college campuses.

Not all community colleges are interested, at least not now, in offering four-year degrees.

"We feel that our lane is firmly in associate's degrees and career and technical education certificates,'' said Libby Howell, spokeswoman for Pima Community College. "That's not the case with some of our rural college colleagues who do have real problems,'' she continued, explaining that's why Pima neither supported or opposed the measure.

"That doesn't mean that might not change with some future chancellor, some future governing board,'' Howell said. "But right now that's not Pima's intent.''

The legislation does come with stipulations; it first requires a district governing board to determine if there is a local workforce need for the degrees that would be offered. There also would need to be a study of the costs and whether a similar degree is offered by other Arizona colleges.

There also are specific restrictions on new programs offered in Pima and Maricopa counties, with community college limited to offering no more than 5% of their degrees at the baccalaureate level for the first four years and, after that, capped at 10%. They also cannot charge tuition for those courses for juniors and seniors that is 150% higher than the fees for courses in the first two years.

And before new degrees could be offered, public universities also would be given a chance to provide a written response to any planned community college degrees.

EDITOR'S NOTE: KJZZ is licensed to the Maricopa County Community College District.

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