Should lawmakers make larger cuts to other areas of state government or perhaps raise taxes to preserve as much state money as possible for universities? A Republic editorial recently made that case, but I beg to differ.
The Republic focused on research being conducted at Arizona universities, citing work to develop artificial limbs and algae-based fuels, and tracking near-Earth meteors as examples of critical work that must continue despite the financial crisis facing this state.
The reality, however, is that cutting university funding represents the lesser of many evils for state lawmakers attempting to close a staggering $3 billion deficit. clear pixel
None of these research projects is likely to benefit Arizona taxpayers more than taxpayers in other states. A good example is the near-Earth space-object research. Unless Arizona is the only place likely to be hit by an asteroid, people outside Arizona should, and probably do, help pay for the research. If projects with diffuse benefits are to be funded by taxpayers, they should be broadly funded through institutions like the National Science Foundation.
Because universities have other funding sources like the federal government, research grants from private companies and foundations, and tens of thousands of tuition-paying students, their budgets are a more attractive place for lawmakers to cut, not less. If a university budget is cut, it has the opportunity to make up the revenue from other sources. If a state prison has its budget cut, it has to release criminals back onto the streets. Pick your poison.
Arizona's universities attract about $800 million in outside research funds in addition to the $1.5 billion they receive annually from Arizona taxpayers. The state's general-fund budget is $10 billion. Although scientific research is interesting and important, fundamentally, it is not the purpose of a state university and alone cannot begin to justify this significant taxpayer subsidy.
The strongest argument for subsidizing universities is that society benefits from an educated public. Universities, therefore, should be focused on educating students. And this is precisely where Arizona's universities leave something to be desired.
The Education Trust, a highly respected left-of-center research organization, ranks both Arizona State University and University of Arizona graduation rates at the bottom when compared with peer institutions. ASU and UA's 28 percent four-year graduation rates are a little better than half of Education Trust's top-performing peer, Indiana University. In fact, the six-year graduation rates of ASU and UA finally approach Indiana's four-year graduation rate.
Even granting that there are societal benefits from an educated public, the notion that taxpayers should subsidize every person's college education has limits. As someone with multiple degrees from public universities, I can confidently say that these degrees have done much more good for me than for my next-door neighbor. Further, while they are doing my family some good, you would be hard pressed to find the benefit to the taxpayers of Texas who subsidized my education.
Arizona taxpayers have every right to expect outstanding undergraduate-education programs before we are asked to pick up the tab for research not specific to this state. Far more than having research budgets protected from trimming during this fiscal crisis, Arizona universities need a greater focus on their core mission of educating students.
Matthew Ladner is vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute.