After nation’s deepest higher ed cuts, advocates see glimmer of hope

Arizona had the steepest cuts in state support to higher education of any state in the nation over the last five years, at 27.3 percent, but the trend could be reversed in upcoming state budgets. (Photo by SalFalko/flickr via Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Arizona cut higher education funding deeper than any other state last year, capping a five-year period in which the state led the nation with a 27.3 percent cut from its support for colleges, a new report says.

The Illinois State University “Grapevine” survey of state budgets said Arizona was one of just nine states to cut higher ed funding between fiscal 2015 and 2016, when it trimmed 14 percent from state colleges.

But Gov. Doug Ducey has proposed a $4 million supplemental appropriation for colleges this year, and included a modest increase in higher ed support in his fiscal 2017 budget – a “terrific first step” in the words of one advocate, but one that still leaves universities wanting.

The Grapevine survey said Louisiana was the only other state to cut higher ed spending by more than 20 percent since fiscal 2011.

By contrast, state support for college budgets last year grew by an average of 4.1 percent nationwide, according to preliminary numbers from the Grapevine, which was still waiting this week for 2016 budget numbers from Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Eileen Klein, president of the Arizona Board of Regents, said it was interesting to note how many states are reinvesting in higher education.

“The question is when is Arizona going to do the same?” Klein asked.

Arizona started moving in that direction this year, when Ducey proposed the supplemental, that would add $4 million to this year’s nearly $791 million in state funding for higher education. His fiscal 2017 budget calls for a $14 million increase in ongoing funds, $8 million of which would go toward funding a new model pushed by university presidents that would give financial support to in-state students.

Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said the governor inherited a budget in the red “but now we’re in a position where we have money in the bank and we’re able to make some investments and this is an area where he really wanted to invest.”

Higher ed funding accounts for 7.1 percent of Ducey’s fiscal 2014 budget request, what Scarpinato called “a big slice of the pie.” By comparison, corrections accounted for 11.2 percent of the budget and K-12 schools consumed 42.5 percent.

Scarpinato also said universities, with budgets totaling $5.7 billion, have other sources of funding, including the federal government.

“These are very large enterprises that have been very successful at finding available dollars,” he said.

Klein welcomed the governor’s proposal, which “allows us to end this era of cutting,” but she said it would not be enough for the long term. The regents are asking legislators for $24 million more than what the governor has requested, to make up for larger-than-expected cuts last year.

Klein said she is optimistic that legislators will come through, noting that the state is projected to have budget surpluses in the coming years.

“There’s certainly not a financial reason to not be able to commit to public universities this year,” she said.

Instead of working toward a specific funding amount, Klein said the regents are trying to convince the state to eventually cover 50 percent of per pupil costs. That would be above the 34.3 percent of per pupil costs the state covered this year, but well below the 72.2 percent it covered in fiscal 2008, when the state had its most robust general fund.

A board presentation to lawmakers noted that the state wasn’t always at the bottom for higher education spending, ranking 27th nationally in 1995.

Scarpinato said funding for universities is important, but he said it’s also important to pay attention to how universities have performed.

He said Arizona’s schools have done well compared to the rest of the country, noting that Arizona State University was recently named the most innovative university in the nation and that a University of Arizona graduate student discovered water on Mars.

“We’re less concerned with what percent are we increasing, where are we on a list than we are with what kind of outcomes are we seeing in our universities and what kind of higher education experiences are out students having,” Scarpinato said.