Arizona’s community colleges may have the best chance ever of finally being able to offer four-year degrees to their students.
With only three dissenting votes, the state House voted last week to permit community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees to students. The measure now goes to the Senate.
If passed, the move would cap years of efforts by advocates to find alternatives to what some consider expensive and inconvenient four-year degree programs at the state’s three universities.
This year, possibly recognizing the increased sentiment of lawmakers for a more affordable alternative, the university system agreed not to oppose HB 2523. But they did demand – and the colleges agreed to – some concessions.
The measure requires studies to determine if the colleges can hire the necessary faculty and sustain the four-year programs.
There also has to be a determination that the degrees offered will meet needed fields and whether they would “unnecessarily duplicate’’ programs offered elsewhere.
And there’s no authority for new property taxes.
There’s an extra hurdle in HB 2523 for the colleges in Pima and Maricopa counties. They could initially offer only a limited number of four-year degrees, defined as no more than 10 percent of total degrees offered for the first four years and 15 percent for years five and beyond.
Potentially more significant, tuition for courses in the junior and senior years cannot exceed 15 percent of what they charge for any other program.
Still, that would be a major cost break.
Typical tuition at state universities runs north of $9,000 a year and up to more than $12,000.
At Maricopa Community Colleges there is a flat rate of $1,020 per semester, putting the cap at slightly more than $3,000 annually.
It is likely to take two years or more to do the studies, hire the staff and get the offerings accredited.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who chairs the House Education Committee, said the Board of Regents’ decision to not oppose the bill was a major development.
“We have a great need for more four-year degrees in our state,’’ she said. Beyond that, Udall said is the opportunity for students to get a four-year degree in their home communities.
“Often when students move to get an education they don’t return,’’ she said. “So we lose a lot of those students to other states or other communities instead of saying in their home community.’’
Linda Thor, a member of the governing board of the Maricopa colleges, said this can serve urban students as well.
“This legislation supports students who would not transfer (to a university) but will enroll if they have an option at their local community college that is convenient and affordable and leads to a good-paying job,’’ she told members of the Education Committee.
Thor also said that the colleges could help fill needs created by shortages of people with four-year degrees, including teaching and health care.
Brittney Kaufmann, lobbyist for the regents, said they now want a requirement for the community college systems in Pima, Maricopa and Coconino to have to work directly with university presidents if before they offer four-year degrees. She did not detail what that means and whether the university officials would have some veto power.
But Kelsey Lundy, lobbyist for the Maricopa colleges, said she interprets this as a “first right of refusal’’ by the universities to offer programs that the colleges are considering.
She told lawmakers, though, that is conditional on “affordability,’’ meaning that the universities would have to provide those four-year degrees at the same cost as the community colleges would charge.