PHOENIX — A House panel voted Monday to allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees, calling them a less expensive and more accessible alternative than universities.
The 7-3 vote by the House Education Committee for House Bill 2790 came despite objections from the Arizona Board of Regents and the three state universities they govern. Those universities are currently the only publicly funded schools allowed to award baccalaureate degrees.
Regents’ lobbyist Brittney Kaufmann questioned the need for the bill, saying the universities already have partnerships with every community college to offer four-year degrees, though that can require a student to complete the program through the university, either on campus or online.
But Darcy Renfro, representing Maricopa Community Colleges, said it’s not as simple as that. She said there are some programs that students cannot get through one of these partnerships.
And then there’s the cost.
Renfro said a full-time student at Maricopa Community Colleges pays about $2,500 a year.
That means the ability to get a four-year degree for as little as $10,000, she said. By contrast, tuition for a single year at one of the state’s three universities runs more than that.
The measure goes next to the full House after constitutional review.
It is being pushed by Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton. The issue is “very important to rural communities where we lose our children often to the cities,” she told lawmakers. “They don’t have the option in their rural community to finish that four-year degree oftentimes.”
She emphasized to colleagues that nothing in her legislation would force any community college to expand its programs.
Instead, Nutt said, her measure would allow each governing board to decide if they want to offer such degrees and whether they have the capability to do so.
None of this would require additional state aid, she said.
Much of the push is coming from Eastern Arizona College in Safford, the area Nutt represents.
“It is meant to support students,” said Gibson McKay, a lobbyist for the school. “What we’re attempting to do is allow students to get an education within their community. A lot of them can’t leave to go to universities.”
Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, said that makes sense.
“The big winners in this are the kids,” he said, “the kids that are going to benefit from not having to lose their jobs that they might have had for two or three years during high school and the expertise they have in the local economy.”
Kaufmann countered that universities have 245 programs leading to baccalaureate degrees through every community college. The most recent figures show they served 3,600 students, with a 75% graduation rate, she said.
Kaufmann did not dispute the cost differential. But she said the universities offer various forms of financial aid.
Some of the universities offer “alternate pricing,” she added, citing programs through Northern Arizona University where students attending classes at local community colleges pay just 70 percent of the regular resident tuition.
Anyway, she said, there are “institutional costs” that make a university-provided education more expensive — costs that Kaufmann said may have escaped the community colleges that want to go down this path.
Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, said the universities appear to be open to providing programs that perhaps are not offered in local communities. That makes legislation like this premature, she said.
Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Goodyear, was skeptical that somehow community colleges could start offering four-year degrees.
“It sounds like a great program. The question is, is it feasible?” Peten asked, noting the need to add faculty, equipment and physical space. “I didn’t hear anything that convinced me that you could do that without any additional funding.”