Budget cuts scissorsSolving the state’s budget dilemma will require some tough choices and potentially painful cuts. But we would be short-sighted if we continued to look at funding our state university system as a cost center instead of the powerful investment and economic engine that it is.

Per-student funding for Arizona’s university system was already cut in half during the Great Recession, which led to tuition at ASU, NAU and the U of A doubling between 2007-2012. The Governor’s proposed state budget makes further funding cuts of about $77.5 million, or 10 percent, for next year, and some fear the cuts could be even deeper as the budget gets negotiated with the House and Senate.

Why is funding for our state’s university system so important? Isn’t $700 million still a huge number to spend on higher education?

In a vacuum, yes, it is.  However, the return on our investment becomes very clear when we study the data. For example, college graduates get better jobs with higher wages and better benefits, pay more in taxes and spend more on the goods and services your company and others like it are selling. States like Texas understand this, and have made significant investments in higher education. This, in turn, provides for a massive advantage over states like Arizona when it comes to recruiting new companies or encouraging existing companies to expand.

The US Census Bureau says the median earnings in 2012 of an individual in Arizona with a graduate degree were $60,562, while those of someone with a bachelor’s degree were $46,668. Individuals with some college, but no degree, had median earnings of $32,278 and those with just a high school diploma had median earnings of $25,923. In 2012, Arizona public university graduates earned nearly $13.2 billion in wages and paid $947 million – nearly a billion dollars – in state and local taxes.

College graduates contribute more to our economy. We should be fostering that, not making it more difficult for Arizonans to achieve their degrees.

A high-quality university system that is a key component of a growing economy and contributes to the overall quality of life in our state should be a priority. Even during the recession, undergraduate enrollment increased by 17 percent, and by 2020, more than 140,000 undergraduates will be enrolled in our state universities. In the next decade, they’re going to be looking for you to hire them or they’ll be your customers.

The Board of Regents believes – as we do – that our universities should be affordable and accessible, and that we must find a sustainable funding model going forward that doesn’t depend on the vagaries of the state budget. We must look farther forward than the next fiscal year and recognize funding for higher education is an investment, not merely an expense.

Potentially painful decisions must be made, but it’s critical that we don’t just cut funding until it hurts just to remedy a temporary budget crisis. Our economy depends on it.

Posted by Josh Coddington