Arizona universities face growing pains

February 28, 2013
Arizona’s public universities are usually described as thriving and constantly growing. Arizona State University is the biggest in the nation by enrollment and fights off rivals to keep that rank. The University of Arizona in Tucson is in the fight too, aggressively wooing students to its campus. But that enrollment boom comes with its growing pains.

University of Arizona The University of Arizona's Old Main building. (Photo via University of Arizona on Facebook)

The University of Arizona hit a new goal this school year; for the first time, it topped 40,000 students, the most the school has ever had. And bad economy or not, the school is optimistic the number of students will only grow.

This has led to a student housing boom spreading through Tucson. Developers have torn out old neighborhoods, building complexes big enough for 750 students. Brick townhomes have swallowed forgotten vacant lots downtown. Another complex is springing up in what was once empty desert a mile from the school. Student-customers will have access to swimming pools on the roof. Others will have tanning beds.

John Heiserman is a property manager of an older and smaller complex about a mile from the U of A. This is the first year he’s ever had to advertise for tenants.

"You have to, because they just won’t stop building them," he said. "Some of these places are 500, 600, 700, 800, 1,000 beds and they just keep going up.”

The University of Arizona's freshman class has been increasing by 200-300 students every year for the last decade. That’s just part of the growth. This winter, both ASU and the U of A asked the state board of regents to lift the cap on out-of-state students from 30 to 40 percent of the student population. ABOR only recently approved the increase.

But the U of A is closing in on the maximum number of students it can hold on campus, 43,000.

Kasey Urquidez is Dean of Undergraduate Admissions. She says with modern technology, physical space isn’t really a problem.

"The opportunities are unlimited outside of that where we can do online and off-site,” she said.

When asked, students go either way on the online courses option. Some think it’s efficient; others, like math major David Fann, say they’re nice but a real teacher can’t be replaced.

"For me it’s always more difficult to do things online," Fann said.

Then there’s the question of humanities. The university’s reputation as a research institute places it among the best of its kind across the nation.

Frederick Kiefer is an English professor. The department is shrinking; professors leave and aren’t replaced. Even the future of its PhD program has grown uncertain.

"It’s become a polytechnic rather than a university. This is no longer a university," he said.

University officials say they’re careful to balance out the ratio of students it brings to campus with the number of professors and resources for the students to use. They say they calculate out a science of proportions.

But some students aren’t convinced.

Camila Duyakbyva is a sophomore. She’s sitting on a bench with a friend outside Old Main. She says she doesn’t get the interaction she was hoping for with her professors. Her economics class has 800 students.

"There’s a huge crowd and you can’t really ask the personal questions you want to ask and you don’t feel really comfortable so you just kind of put up with it,” Duyakbyva said.

Her friend, Alexander Rascon, is in the school of nursing.

"I understood when I came to the U of A I’d have large classes but I never thought I wouldn’t have the interaction with professors like I think I should," Rascon said.

Now the U of A is developing its plans for what it’s continued growth will be like. Among the questions it needs to answer: How will the campus look in five years as fresh students keep arriving? How many of them will learn online? And can the university maintain its reputation as a traditional, hometown college?

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