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Bill Ridenour: Keeping college within reach is a priority for Arizona Board of Regents

Bill Ridenour: Keeping college within reach is a priority for Arizona Board of Regents

The world changes, the economy evolves and society transforms itself again and again, but education is still “the great equalizer.”

The phrase, coined in 1848 by noted educator and abolitionist Horace Mann, remains true today. For the child of modest means and big dreams, a great education — specifically, higher education — is still the surest path to a better life. It was for me.

Rural beginnings

I grew up in the tiny Black Mountains community of Oatman, in northwestern Arizona. A fourth-generation Arizonan, my family came to this state in 1872 as gold prospectors. As a young boy, I attended a one-room schoolhouse where we had one teacher for all eight grades. My educational journey spanned from that schoolhouse to a bachelor’s and, ultimately, a law degree at the University of Arizona.

The lessons I learned along the way — about myself and my life’s work in the law — have never stopped guiding me.

That’s why I’m so adamant that more Arizonans have the same opportunity to achieve a college education. As the new chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, university access and affordability are priorities that I and the rest of the board will continue to pursue in the coming year. I’m proud to report tuition increases have slowed significantly across Arizona’s public universities, while tuition pledge and guarantee programs are improving tuition predictability for students and families.

Financial aid will remain an important component of college affordability. In fiscal 2016, Arizona’s public universities allocated more than $620 million in financial aid; more than 90 percent of students across all three institutions now benefit from some form of tuition assistance.

Access for all

But keeping a college degree within reach is about more than affordable tuition. It also means showing compassion and respect to those individuals brought to this country as small children and raised here, and who now seek to better themselves through a university education.

Their story is as old as America itself.

Recently, my fellow regents and I affirmed our decision to enable this small number of Arizona Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients to continue attending our public universities as in-state students. While the board awaits word from the Arizona Supreme Court, we recognize the only lasting solutions on this issue can come from our elected leaders in Washington. As officials take action to secure our nation’s borders and facilitate lawful immigration and economic opportunity, let them not forget these students who remain in legal limbo.

Time of opportunity

For Arizona’s public universities, this is a time of incredible opportunity and great challenge.

Our graduates are earning more; total university-led research now tops $1.1 billion; and a first-of-its-kind analysis found Arizona’s public universities are responsible for more than $11 billion in total economic impact each year. Our presidents work as a unified team, held accountable for the success of their students and institutions.

This year, we’re proud Gov. Doug Ducey and legislators gave a collective endorsement of our plans and strategic direction by approving $1 billion toward capital improvements that will enable universities to meet the needs of future generations.

Our work is far from finished. Educational achievement in our state remains uneven. In 2014-15, half of Arizona students attending college derived from just 11 percent of Arizona high schools; 33 high schools in our state sent not a single student to college anywhere. Arizona also faces a Latino student achievement gap. Latino students are the largest group of students enrolled in K-12, yet success measures among these students lag other demographic groups.

As higher education leaders, we have a responsibility to do more to advance student success for all students in Arizona. Every student should know that a college degree is a real, attainable and life-changing goal.

Just ask the guy from Oatman.

Bill Ridenour is chair of the Arizona Board of Regents. He was appointed to the board in 2014 by then-Gov. Jan Brewer.

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