Republican lawmakers determined to make higher education unattainable for low income Arizonans

Feb 1st, 2012 | By | Category: education, Featured Articles

Fundamental to American life is the idea that if one works hard, studies hard, he/she can overcome a life of poverty and realize the American Dream.

But these days, the American Dream is virtually impossible without a college degree, and while President Obama works to make college tuition more affordable, Arizona’s Republican legislators take the opposite approach, ensuring that dream is out of reach for lower income Arizonans.

State Representative John Kavanagh introduced legislation that would require all students to pay a minimum of $2000/year toward tuition. The only exceptions are for some students who receive merit or athletic scholarships.

At first glance, that may appear to be a reasonable request. As Mr. Kavanagh states, “Given the fact that universities are continuously bragging that people with college degrees earn a half to a full million dollars more in their lifetimes, I don’t see how starting off on this more lucrative life with an $8,000 loan is going to hurt anybody.”

And he’s right, if a student graduates from college with only $8,000 in student loans, it’s not a big deal. The problem is, students rarely graduate with only $8,000 in loans, and tuition is only a portion of the overall expenses of a college education.

In 2010, Arizona undergrads had an average of $19,946 in student loan debt while graduate students averaged $42,097.

Why do these students graduate with so much debt? Because going to college is expensive, and it extends well beyond the tuition price tag. Anyone who has attended college in the last several decades and paid his/her own way can understand that.

I graduated from college 15 years ago, and though I had numerous academic scholarships and held several part-time jobs, I still accumulated more than $15,000 in student loan debt. Why? Because my parents weren’t rich or even middle class, and if I wanted an education, I had to go it alone.

My parents couldn’t afford to buy me a car or pay for my phone bills or even my laundry expenses. And though I maintained a meager living, I still needed to eat, still needed a roof over my head, and still needed electricity during those cold Minnesota winters.

An additional $8,000 in student loan debt would certainly have been a disincentive for me to attend college. And keep in mind, I was there 15 years ago. Today, lower income students have an even tougher road to navigate as the costs for rent, food, books, and lab fees have gone up considerably. If I was back in that situation, I’m not sure I would be able to obtain a four-year degree.

Though it is true that most graduates will earn more money over the course of his/her lifetime, it is also true most do not earn sizable paychecks after graduation. That takes time. And in this economy, just finding a job after college can be a challenge.

But those aren’t the only reasons I oppose Rep. Kavanagh’s misguided bill. As a resident of this state, I’d like to live in a place that values education for all, not just the privileged few. I’d like to believe that an educated populace would turn out educated leaders capable of solving complex problems. Arizona is in dire need of problem-solving leaders.

Only one-fourth of this state’s population has a college degree. One-fourth. That puts us in the bottom third among states, but worse still is our dismal ranking when comparing the number of high school graduates who move on to college. We rank 45th.

But what about our spending on higher education? Could it be that we spend significantly more than other states, and this is why our lawmakers wish to spend even less? Not even close. We rank near the bottom in higher education funding, and since 2008 the state has slashed funding a whopping 50 percent.

But those statistics mean little to individuals such as Rep. Kavanagh and his Republican co-sponsors. It appears Kavanagh’s aiming for last place — last place in student funding, last place in numbers of educated adults. This, he says, will save the state money. Except that he’s wrong on that, too.

Our state pays the price for inadequate education funding. We pay the price when technology and other high salary businesses turn away from Arizona in favor of states with a more highly educated workforce. We pay the price when our residents pay lower taxes because they earn less. We pay the price when intelligent and talented young adults choose universities outside of Arizona because they cost significantly less. And we the price when intelligent and talented individuals are not allowed to realize the American Dream because they were born into lower income families.

Representative Kavanagh’s bill is yet another example of how Arizona’s Republican leaders fail to understand long-term consequences of legislation or complex policy decisions. Their ideological positions may fare well with ideological voters, but those shortsighted decisions will and are costing this state. In the end all Arizona residents lose as legislators continue to dumb down our state and thumb their noses at education.

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12 Comments to “Republican lawmakers determined to make higher education unattainable for low income Arizonans”

  1. State Representative John Kavanagh says:

    I am amazed that my attempt to have students who have not earned scholarships owing to either academic or athletic accomplishment has met such resistance. I am only asking students who received unearned tuition subsidies to pay $2,000 per year towards their tuition – only about $20%. And to make it even less onerous, they can use any non-university administered aid to pay that last $2,000. That’s right. I still allow the universities to bestow about $7,000 in unearned subsidies on these students.

    Truly, conservatives are from Mars and liberals are from Venus. Even more remarkable is the fact that most of these subsidizes are being paid by taxpayers without four-year college degrees who will statistically earn half a million to one million dollars less in their lifetimes that the college educated students they are paying the way for. Apparently, the rich getting a free ride on the backs of the poor and working class is not an acceptable sound bite for the left, when directed at one of its sacred cows.

    HB2675 is necessary because the universities are internally subsidizing the tuition of non-academic and non-athletic scholars to the degree that nearly half of in-state undergraduate students pay no tuition whatsoever and almost all of the rest pay discounted rates. In fact, these unearned subsidizes are so out of hand that even though ASU has a tuition of about $9,600 per year, the average student pays only $2,931. In these troubled economic times, it is unfair to taxpayers to give away a university education free to those who have not earned it via academic or athletic accomplishments.

    Paying tuition of $2,000 per year is not a great burden because students can still get that money by working, getting non-university aid or by taking out readily available student loans. If they exclusively used loans, the total amount would only be $8,000 for a four-year degree. I will even concede $16,000 to also pay for books and fees. People, including most students from the looks of the overcrowded ASU parking lots, have no trouble paying that and more for cars using loans. Isn’t a university degree worth more than a Chevy Sonic?

    Ending the full tuition write-off for non-academic and non-athletic scholars will also have three benefits beyond being fiscally fair to taxpayers. First, it will free up $18,000,000 that the universities can use to improve their academic activities. The state is not taking this money from the universities. The universities keep every dime of it.

    Second, under the current heavily subsidized tuition system, it is cheaper for many students to attend a state university than their local community college. This unintended incentive lures many students needing more academic preparation away from their local community college to the universities. These students would be better served by attending a year or two at a local community college with smaller class sizes and a greater emphasis on instruction before going to a large impersonal university.

    In fact, some blame the low graduation rates of our universities, which hover in the mid-60% range, on these less academically prepared students entering the universities, being overwhelmed and then failing out. The resultant lower university graduation rates then lower the national rankings of our universities and devalue the degrees of all their past, present and future graduates. In addition, the premature integration of less academically prepared students into the university system lowers the classroom experience for all attendees.

    Finally, making non-academic and non-athletic scholars pay this nominal $2,000 tuition will give them a greater stake in their education. Often, people who get things for free do not take them as serious as they might have had they paid something for them. While paying only about 20% of one’s tuition is still a small amount, it is a motivation nevertheless. The small payment will also dissuade people who have little interest or motivation to attend college from attending anyway because it is free, so they have little to lose.

    Free tuition works well when the recipient earns it but carries a high-unseen price when dispensed to others. “There is no such thing as a free lunch” and “Everyone needs a little skin in the game” are adages that have withstood the test of time because they are true and the sooner student’s learn this, the better of they, the taxpayers and the universities will be.

    • Julie Erfle says:

      Mr. Kavanagh, I’m glad you responded to my article, but I would like to address some of your statements.

      First, I’m surprised that you characterize college tuition aid as a subsidy paid for by the poor and middle class, particularly when this “subsidy” is the only way most poor and middle class families can afford to send their children to college. Do you not believe that those who would be most adversely affected by your bill are low income Arizonans, those who tend to receive the most amount of aid due to financial need? Do they not deserve a chance to receive a college education as well?

      I’m also curious why you think that a highly educated workforce is not in Arizona’s long-term interest. Don’t we want more Arizonans making more money? Wouldn’t this benefit our state through higher taxes and fewer individuals collecting welfare? Isn’t it true that a college education makes it less likely that one will end up needing welfare?

      I agree that we should be concerned about the fairness of subsidies. That’s why I cannot understand why Republican lawmakers do not wish to restructure Arizona’s tax code to get rid of all the loopholes that allow so many businesses to not “have skin in the game.” Yes, we should all have skin in the game, and we should be concerned about fairness. I’m glad, Mr. Kavanagh, that you are addressing fairness.

      I am also perplexed by the Mars/Venus problem among politicians. Why do politicians wish to belong to either planet when most of their constituents are back here on Earth, somewhere in the middle of the extremes?

      The second point I’d like to make is that our state Constitution states that higher education should be “as nearly free as possible.” Your bill takes aim at that statement. Is this a challenge to the Constitution, and if so, shouldn’t it be addressed by a ballot initiative?

      Third, you speak about how many college students are unprepared for the academic rigors of a university degree and the high rate of Arizonans who do not complete their degrees. I agree that this is an area of concern. Why are so few students prepared for college?

      Mr. Kavanagh, this is an area where I think we can find common ground. Instead of punishing students who wish to further their education, let’s work on reforming our K-12 system so that students are prepared for a 21st Century economy. We should demand the types of educational reforms that hold schools and teachers accountable. And we should hold our students to a higher standard as well, requiring additional math and science classes in order to graduate.

      And Mr. Kavanagh, I, too agree that personal responsibility is important. I agree that those who have a lot of “skin in the game” tend to be those who most appreciate his/her successes in life. But I also believe in compassion and that sometimes, particularly in a capitalist society, people need a hand up or a hand out in order to overcome circumstances and become productive members of society.
      But must we choose one over the other? Can we not strike a balance between the two?

      Giving low income Arizonans a chance to obtain a college education many cost us in the short-term, but in the long run, we will benefit from giving these individuals a chance to earn his/her way into the middle class. That’s sensible compassion, and that’s the type of earthly thinking most Americans favor.

  2. State Representative John Kavanagh says:

    Julie,

    Giving low income students $7,000 per year in unearned tuition assistance leaving only about $2,000 for them to pay for tuition is not coldhearted but very reasonable. That small amount plus another $1,500 per year for fees and books can easily be handled by work or loans. I wish you would address that point. In addition, the universities are giving full tuition subsidizes to nearly half the student body, not just poor people.

    This aid has gone too far and I am only pulling it back by about 20%. How is that unreasonable.

    I agree that we have common ground on some of your other points but for now, I would like to focus on the more topical issue of my bill.

    Thanks.

    • Julie Erfle says:

      Mr. Kavanagh, you fail to address the point that tuition is only a PART of the cost of a college education. I agree that students can work and take out loans, but they also must pay for room and board in addition to tuition, books, and fees. The total cost in loans is generally much higher than the $14,000 you quote.

      If you are concerned about the students who can afford that amount but are not paying it, then you should address that in a bill that ties the “tuition minimum” to financial need. This bill does not do that.

      You also fail to address the constitutionality of your bill and how you believe a minimum cost of $14,000 is “as nearly free as possible.”

  3. State Representative John Kavanagh says:

    I accounted for tuition, books and fees. I believe that a roof over your head and food is part of life and not school. Those are expenses all non-resident students pay anyway and resident students choose to assume. Besides, most students are non-residents.

    Concerning the constitutional requirement, the tuition under my plan would be $2,000 and that is very low. I paid $2,000 in 1968 at NYU and survived by working, some family help and student loans and that was in 1968!

    Finally, this bill assumes that everyone should pay at least $2,000 a year tuition for a university degree because that is not only very reasonable but is a “smoking deal.”

    I hope that that answers your questions and do you believe that non-poverty level students should pay the $2,000 minimum or do you believe in universal free college tuition?

    • Julie Erfle says:

      John, I am not advocating for universal free college tuition, but I am in favor of allowing universities the ability to use a combination of grants, scholarships, and loans in financial aid packages that include the costs for tuition, books, fees, AND room and board. There is a reason colleges include room and board costs in their financial aid packages and yes, those costs do make a difference. If this is such a “smoking deal,” then why not put it on the ballot and let voters decide?

  4. State Representative John Kavanagh says:

    I do not believe that it is government’s responsibility to provide room and board students. Personal responsibility needs to be part of the equation and student loans can bridge the gap.

    I paid $2,000 per year in 1968, which is the equivalent of about $19,000 per year today. At state universities, students can do it for far less.

    Regarding putting it to the ballot, we have a republican form of government where most issues are decided by elected representatives. Issues such as this are legislative. You cannot put everything on the ballot. If we put more than six items on the ballot, people complain.

    • Julie Erfle says:

      John, if you paid $2000 per year back in 1968 it was probably because the college determined you and your family could afford to pay that amount. That’s why students go through the financial aid process and why colleges offer financial aid. Not everyone has that luxury. Why not allow colleges to make the determination versus putting it in the hands of the state legislature?

      The state is taking the opposite stance of the majority of Americans and the majority of Arizonans. Residents have said time and again that funding education is important to them and have even approved tax hikes to benefit education — during a recession! The people of Arizona have been very clear about this issue. They are asking the state to increase education funding and make higher education more affordable, not less. This will not end up on the ballot because you, as well as your co-sponsors, already know that residents don’t want it and won’t approve it.

  5. K D Lieby II says:

    A few points before I get to my personal reaction to this bill:
    1) From the bill, verbatim (including line numbers), as per azleg.gov:
    32 A. THE AMOUNT OF TUITION FIXED BY THE BOARD PURSUANT TO SECTION
    33 15-1626 SHALL COMPLY WITH THE FOLLOWING REQUIREMENTS:
    34 1. EXCEPT AS PROVIDED IN SUBSECTION B OF THIS SECTION, EACH STUDENT
    35 WHO IS A FULL-TIME STUDENT ENROLLED AT A UNIVERSITY UNDER THE JURISDICTION OF
    36 THE ARIZONA BOARD OF REGENTS IN FISCAL YEAR 2012-2013 SHALL PERSONALLY
    37 CONTRIBUTE AT LEAST TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS DURING THE ACADEMIC YEAR FOR
    38 TUITION. A STUDENT MAY NOT USE ANY OTHER SOURCE OF PUBLIC OR PRIVATE
    39 FUNDING, INCLUDING GRANTS, GIFTS, SCHOLARSHIPS OR TUITION BENEFITS OR OTHER
    40 TYPES OF FUNDING ADMINISTERED BY OR THROUGH A UNIVERSITY OR AN AFFILIATE OF A
    41 UNIVERSITY, TO REDUCE OR ELIMINATE THAT STUDENT’S CONTRIBUTION UNDER THIS
    42 PARAGRAPH.
    43 2. THE CONTRIBUTION PRESCRIBED IN PARAGRAPH 1 OF THIS SUBSECTION SHALL
    44 BE PRORATED FOR PART-TIME STUDENTS.
    1 3. IN FISCAL YEAR 2013-2014 AND EACH FISCAL YEAR THEREAFTER, THE BOARD
    2 SHALL ANNUALLY ADJUST THE AMOUNT OF STUDENT CONTRIBUTIONS UNDER PARAGRAPH 1
    3 OF THIS SUBSECTION TO BE PROPORTIONAL FOR THAT FISCAL YEAR TO THE RATIO OF A
    4 TWO THOUSAND DOLLAR CONTRIBUTION TO THE TUITION AMOUNT FOR RESIDENTS OF THIS
    5 STATE FOR FISCAL YEAR 2012-2013.
    6 B. SUBSECTION A OF THIS SECTION DOES NOT APPLY TO STUDENTS WHO EITHER:
    7 1. ARE AWARDED AN ATHLETIC SCHOLARSHIP AND REMAIN IN GOOD STANDING
    8 WITH THE NATIONAL ORGANIZATION THAT OVERSEES COLLEGIATE ATHLETICS.
    9 2. RECEIVE A GRANT, AWARD OR SCHOLARSHIP THAT IS BASED SOLELY ON
    10 ACADEMIC MERIT OR SOLELY ON A SPECIAL APTITUDE, TALENT OR ABILITY FROM A
    11 COMPETITIVE NATIONAL PROGRAM. THIS EXCEPTION SHALL BE LIMITED TO NO MORE
    12 THAN FIVE PER CENT OF THE STUDENTS WHO ENROLL FOR THE FIRST TIME AS
    13 UNDERGRADUATES AT EACH UNIVERSITY.
    2) I note that paragraph 1 of these changes specifies *ALL* funding administered by the universities. As written, this seems to include Pell grants and student loans, as these would be public funding administered by the universities.
    3) 95% of students will be exempted from being able to use academic scholarships or grants to pay this tuition fee, with one exception to follow. That means that students who go through the process of applying for, competing for and earning these funds will be unable to use them for tuition—even if that is the only purpose for which they can be used.
    4) Athletes are exempted from the 5% academic rule. They are listed as a separate class.
    5) If a parent (or other party) chooses to place funds in a student’s bursar account, this money (a gift, as listed in paragraph 1) becomes part of a fund administered by the university in question. Therefore, family aid not sent directly to the student would be ineligible to pay this fee.
    Need I go on?
    As a student who came back to school at 30 years old, earning minimum wage to cover what of my cost-of-living my Pell grant and loans don’t cover, I’ve run a little calculation. I would have to work 131 extra hours (assuming I stop paying taxes and Federal fees) per semester. That’s 32.75 hours of study or class time I’d lose *per 4-credit class,* as I don’t think I’m going to cut my daily commute miraculously, or sacrifice that much more sleep. Is this law going to exempt me from homework assignments? Is it going to change the minimum attendance requirement for my classes?
    This * is 44 extra shifts * per year to pay this fee. There are 52 weeks per year. That means that i would only have 8 weeks per year where I would not have to pick up an extra shift.
    Once I have the cash-on-hand, of course, I could theoretically reimburse myself from the university-administered funds and set * that * money aside for the next semester and thereby skirt the intent of the law, but I have a sneaky suspicion that an audit of my accounts by the AZDOR would catch that. (AZDOR has the right to audit anyone who pays state income tax.)
    So, thank you, Rep. John Kavanagh. Thank you for making it that much harder to avoid triggering my chronic migraines due to over-taxing my system. Thank you for making it harder to keep my stress level below the point at which my ulcers return. Thank you for making it that much harder to stay off permanent disability and living off of the Arizona taxpayer. This is one future drop out that is going to enjoy his unearned food stamps.
    As my younger classmates would say: “NOT.” I’m going to throw this poisoned apple back in your face.
    If this law is enacted, if I am forced to drop out of school in Arizona, I’ll move. I’ll work for a year to 18 months to earn residency in another state, and then go to school there. That means over $20,000 in wages and financial aid * per year * that will be transferred to another state economy for my future education.
    I’ve started over before. I’ll do it again.

    • Julie Erfle says:

      KD, thank you for your response. You pointed out something that I failed to denote in my article, that 95% of all students will not be able to use scholarships to help offset the $2,000 tuition minimum.

      I hope you do not move to another state but rather use this information to help educate other college students and parents to put pressure on the legislature and the Governor to stop this bill.

  6. [...] But parents and university officials can take comfort in Mr. Gould’s bill by knowing that many students and professors will never have to fear an armed gunman on campus because many students will no longer be attending Arizona’s universities. Representative John Kavanagh has made it more difficult for students, particularly low-income students, to attend college with his minimum tuition bill. [...]

  7. [...] does harm to other groups as well. Though I wrote in length about the details of this bill in a previous article, one thing I did not address and many in the media have failed to address, is that many academic [...]

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