graduation

Arizona’s community colleges won’t be offering four-year degrees, at least not in the immediate future.

On a 6-3 vote last week, the Senate Education Committee quashed legislation which would have allowed these colleges to start offering baccalaureate degrees. The 6-3 vote came despite the same measure having gained bipartisan House approval last month on a 42-18 margin.

Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton, the prime sponsor, argued that the current system requires rural students who want four-year degrees to leave their homes, affecting families and undermining efforts to promote local economic development.

She said nothing in HB 2790 would force any community college to expand its reach.

 But Nutt said many of these already have buildings and other infrastructure in place that would allow them to start offering four-year degrees without any new investment and without raising local taxes.

Larry Penley, president of the Arizona Board of Regents, told lawmakers there is no real need.

He said the state’s three universities already have working relationships with community colleges around the state, partnering with them in ways to offer four-year degrees. 

And he said there even is reduced tuition for university courses that are taught on community college campuses.

But Keith Alexander, assistant to the president of Eastern Arizona College, said much of what’s taught is by computer links. He said that’s no substitute for actually having faculty on campus.

And Alexander said there are gaps in what kind of degrees are available in his rural community.

“We have jobs that are not filled there, the majority of those requiring bachelor’s degrees,’’ he said. “And there aren’t people there to fill them.’’

None of the legislators who voted against the proposal disputed there may be needs, particularly in rural areas, for additional paths to a four-year degree. 

But their concern was the breadth of the legislation, opening the door without restriction to community colleges being able to offer any degree they want.

“Just simply opening the gates ... creating a Dodge City atmosphere where you could have multiple nursing programs, multiple accredited programs, you could have all kinds of unhealthy competition,’’ said Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix.

She said there may be some options. But this bill, Brophy McGee said, is not it.

“This has to be put together thoughtfully, carefully,’’ she said, perhaps with more study and a pilot program.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, however, said he looks at it from the perspective of students.

“This help out low-income families,’’ he said, with degrees at community colleges likely to cost far less than what universities charge. 

And Borrelli said he was not concerned about the effect on universities, suggesting if they were forced to compete, they might lower their own costs.

But Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said that’s making an assumption. He pointed out that there is nothing in the legislation that precludes community colleges, granted the ability to offer four-year degrees, do not raise their tuition.

That possibility of higher tuition didn’t impress Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake. She said universities, which have no state-mandated cap on tuition, have been increasing tuition now for decades.

Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, said not every community college in the state wants this authority. She suggested the issue needs further study.

That did not go down well with Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City.

“It’s been talked at for decades now, decades!’’ he said. “From the last century, it’s been talked about.’’