Enrollment at Arizona public universities is projected to grow by 70,000 students over the next 15 years. To ensure continued access to a college education, some community colleges would like to offer four-year degrees.
On its face, this sounds reasonable. But a closer examination suggests this is not the simple solution it might seem. One problem with expanding the state’s current higher education system is the untold cost of making an already inefficient system bigger. The latest estimate from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee projects over $80 million in associated costs to taxpayers from allowing just one community college to start offering four-year degrees.
Such an expansion would also cripple Arizona’s healthy market for private colleges. Total enrollment growth at private colleges and universities outpaced growth at their public counterparts by more than four to one over the past decade. Private institutions in Arizona have also edged past state universities in first-time, full-time freshmen enrollments.
Instead of crowding out the private sector, let’s use it.
To improve access to an affordable college education, Arizona should adopt a student grant system of higher education finance. Each year, a portion of higher education appropriations could go to students directly in the form of grants. Like the Pell Grant program, students could use their grants to attend any in-state postsecondary institution, public or private.
Arizona already has a smaller-scale program of this kind called the Private Postsecondary Education Student Financial Assistance Program (PFAP). It awards grants to eligible community college graduates who enroll in private baccalaureate degree programs. PFAP students must complete their degrees or repay their grants. The current PFAP graduation rate is 86 percent. Since 1997, the program has helped over 1,000 financially needy students and saved the state more than $8 million.
Making all Arizona college-bound students eligible for PFAP grants would expand access to higher education and improve Arizona’s college graduation rates. Only half the undergraduates attending an Arizona university will likely graduate in six years, and only about a quarter of full-time freshmen at state community colleges will finish their degrees in three years.
Importantly, giving grants directly to students lets them, not the state, determine which college or university offers the best program. Having to compete for students would also put powerful pressure on all Arizona institutions of higher learning, both public and private, to keep costs down and improve performance or risk losing students and their education dollars.
Expanding the current system to allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees won’t guarantee access to an affordable college education in Arizona. Building on PFAP’s proven track record of achievement by giving students a portion of their higher education funding directly in the form of grants will expand access to colleges and universities for all students. And making colleges and universities compete for students on a more level playing field will keep higher education affordable. This is a long-term solution that will help all students attend college.
Vicki Murray, Ph.D., is director of the Goldwater Institute Center for Educational Opportunity,