Kavanagh: Are Too Many Arizonans Going to College?

Jan 21, 2014

The head of the House Appropriations Committee said if the state’s three universities are complaining they don’t have enough money, there’s probably a good reason for that. And, he said it's not because the state is shorting them. Arizona Public Radio’s Howard Fischer explains.

Rep. John Kavanagh
Credit Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer

The budget proposal unveiled last week by Gov. Jan Brewer gives essentially no new cash to universities. There’s some money to equalize per-student funding among the schools. But, the request by the Board of Regents for an extra $100 million was rebuffed. Some of that involves the state’s still-shaky finances. But, Rep. John Kavanagh suggested another reason. He said the state is spending too much on students who really shouldn’t be going to college in the first place.

“If you go back to the ’70s and before then, it was your best students that were going to the universities. Now, almost anybody can go to college,” Kavanagh said.

And, Kavanagh said that’s not necessarily a good thing — especially when that education is being subsidized with state tax dollars.

“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. Is that really a good way to spend money?” Kavanagh said.

Rick Myers, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, conceded not everyone needs a degree. In fact, in a report last year the state Department of Administration said three-fourths of the job openings in the near future will require only a high school diploma — or less. But, Myers said if Arizona is to prosper it needs to have more college graduates than the 24,000 a year the university system is producing now.

“I can’t believe 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,” Myers said.

But, Kavanagh questioned why the state would invest money helping someone who might wind up in a sales job to get a degree from a research university.

“What’s the purpose of it? All it does is bestow a debt on them,” Kavanagh said. “And it takes limited state money for higher education and dilutes it so that we can’t concentrate on having some of our science areas and engineering areas be really stellar.”

Myers, a former IBM executive, said that’s overly simplistic.

“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,” Myers said.

And, Myers said if the argument comes down to the role of universities in economic development, he has an answer for that, too. He said all anyone needs to do is look at the fact that Arizona was harder hit than most other states in the 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. We haven’t had the robust economy we need to isolate ourselves from some of this and to be able to handle it. And I would hope we learned from it we have to create a future that's different than what we’ve had in the past.”

The budget debate continues this coming week as state lawmakers start picking apart the governor’s plan and deciding what they want to fund.