John Kavanagh

State Rep. John Kavanagh [Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services]

Arizona is spending too much money providing a university education to students who really do not need it, according to the head of the House Appropriations Committee.

“The university redistributes a tremendous amount of tuition money so that almost anybody can go to the university,” Rep. John Kavanagh said in an interview with Capitol Media Services.

But Kavanagh said not everyone should be going to a university — especially one subsidized with state tax dollars.

“If somebody's going to end up in a sales position or someone's going to be a real estate agent, why are we investing all this money in a research university degree,” he said. “What's the purpose of it?”

Kavanagh's comments come as lawmakers are deciding how much more money, if any, to give to the state university system next fiscal year.

On Friday, Gov. Jan Brewer essentially proposed a no-growth budget for the schools.

Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University are getting some additional dollars, but that is simply the last payment on a multi-year promise to bring per-student funding up to what the University of Arizona had been getting all along.

The $15 million for U of A has a significant string attached: It has to be given over the next five years to the privately operated Translational Genomics Research Institute to jointly help commercialize theoretical biomedical research.

By contrast, the Regents sought $100 million in new money with the argument that was necessary to maintain quality education without putting even more burden on the backs of students with higher tuition.

Kavanagh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said maybe the funding crunch shows it's time to “dramatically look at our entire philosophy of higher education.”

The 63-year-old Kavanagh said that up until the 1970s only the best students went on to get a university degree.

“Now, almost anybody can go to college,” he said.

“We spread limited money over a large area, and we have a lot of college graduates who are working in retail and food service jobs,” Kavanagh continued. “Is that really a good way to spend money?”

Kavanagh said students who go to college but don't need to be there end up in debt, and he said the state subsidies for these students takes the limited funds “and dilutes it so we can't concentrate on having some of our science areas and engineering areas being really stellar.”

Rick Myers, chairman of the Board of Regents, said universities need to be good at more than technical fields.

“I had as many strong people working for me that were English majors and philosophy majors as I did people that had a physics degree or a science degree,” said Myers, a former IBM executive.

Myers said if Kavanagh wants to look at it from a purely economic standpoint, there's an argument to be made there, too.

He said Arizona was hit far worse than most other states during the most recent recession.

“It's because we went into it with one of the lowest per-capita incomes, with one of the lowest educated workforces in the nation,” he said. “We haven't had the robust economy we need to isolate ourselves from some of this.”

Myers conceded not everyone needs a university degree.

In a report last year, the state Department of Administration said three-fourths of the job openings expected over the next year and a half will require only a high school diploma — or less.

Aruna Murthy, the agency's director of economic analysis, figures the top demands will be for cashiers, waiters and waitresses, and food-preparation workers. That is followed by retail sales, customer service representatives and clerks.

Myers said the state needs more college graduates than the 24,000 the university system is producing now, saying the state is below the national average in the percentage of adults who have a college degree.

“I can't believe that anyone that's an elected official in Arizona representing our citizens wouldn't appreciate that we need to have enough to be competitive, to give our state and our people a chance to have the life that they deserve,” he said.

Kavanagh rejected the argument that more people with college degrees will lead to more high-paying jobs.

“Continuously pouring more money into higher ed is not the solution to get these jobs,” he said.

Kavanagh said he would rather focus on increasing standards for high schools to turn out students who can take the engineering courses at the college level.

“If a student can't even spell ‘calculus’ when they graduate from high school, how are they going to go into engineering and fill these positions?” he asked.

Kavanagh said, though, that does not mean Arizona should instead throw more money into K-12 education. He said the record around the country shows that more dollars does not equal higher achievement.

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