In an increasingly competitive global economy, Arizona’s public universities have given opportunities for success to lifelong residents and newcomers alike. But, just like the students in their halls, the leaders of these august institutions know there is progress needed to ensure the best possible outcomes — especially when it comes to funding Arizona universities. On April 14, 2022, the Greater Phoenix Chamber hosted the presidents of Arizona State University (ASU), Northern Arizona University (NAU) and the University of Arizona (UArizona) to discuss the state of higher education.  

At the event, José Luis Cruz Rivera, president of NAU, made a major announcement. “Starting in the fall of ‘23,” he says, “if you are admitted to NAU and you come from a household with an income of less than $65,000 a year — which is one out of every two households in Arizona — you will go to NAU tuition free.”  

That said, there is much still to be done for learners across the Grand Canyon State.  

“We’ve got too many dropouts and too few pathways to take those people that don’t finish high school for whatever reason,” says Michael Crow, president of ASU. “[The education system] is doing okay, but we’re not innovating quickly enough. And we’re certainly not as aware of the 100-foot waves that are ahead of us. 100-foot waves are fantastic if you know how to surf — they’re very painful if you don’t.” 

Business lessons from Arizona universities

The backing of the public is essential to the state’s educational institutions and their operational success. When asked what marks he’d give the business community in terms of support for Arizona’s universities, Crow did not mince words: “A low grade.” 

“We need two things from the state legislature with support by the business community,” Crow continues. “We need half of the cost of attendance of a student from Arizona, and we’ll keep the cost of attendance in the lowest 10% of research universities. That’s an unbelievable deal, and no one will agree to that.” 

The second thing Crow mentions is needing more funding when ASU tackles important statewide issues, such as researching and developing new water systems and technologies. “If you’re asking us to step up and do more, make a few dollars available to us,” he says. 

While a proponent of low taxes, Crow points out that the legislature has cut taxes more than 20 times in the last 25 years. “Every time there’s a blip of additional money it’s ‘cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes’ while we’re underpreparing the workforce to be competitive in the future,” he contends. “We’ve redesigned [ASU, NAU and UArizona] to operate in a completely different way than other institutions. My own view is that the business community is still focused on interests that are too narrow, too parochial around their own concerns. They’re not playing the long ball game, they’re playing the short ball game, and we need to fix it.” 

This includes the community college system, which Crow contends is vital to a successful, economically competitive Arizona. Cruz Rivera largely agrees with Crow, adding that he’s puzzled by the mismatch between the ambitious aspirations for Arizona residents and the funding the universities receive.  

“If we agree that we need more people with post-secondary degrees to make this a wildly competitive economy,” Cruz Rivera continues, “why is it that my third-year nursing students are funded $2,500 less than a third grader in Arizona on a per capita basis — and knowing that our third graders are underfunded?”  

READ ALSO: AZ BIG Podcast: José Luis Cruz Rivera talks about the ‘New NAU’

For Dr. Robert Robbins, president of UArizona and an internationally renowned cardiac surgeon, the lack of every type of healthcare worker is deeply concerning. He believes that UArizona, ASU and NAU should all have medical schools, else private colleges such as Creighton University and Tufts University will continue to fill that gap.  

On the issue of funding, Robbins points out states such as Texas and Florida that have no state income tax but still manage to invest in education. “In Florida, they made it a priority in the state legislature that the University of Florida was going to be a top 10 public university, and they achieved that.”