By Matt Lutz.
As of September 29, Arizona allows community colleges to offer four-year degrees. Senate Bill 1453 (SB 1453), which was signed into law by Governor Ducey on May 4, 2021, was intended to expand access to higher education among historically underrepresented populations. However, the bill’s opponents, including the Arizona Board of Regents, argue that the state needs its community colleges to focus on increasing graduation rates for its existing two-year programs, not to expand into four-year degrees. Whether the new law will create meaningful impacts and increase education attainment for diverse students remains to be seen.
ARIZONA’S ROCKY EDUCATION HISTORY
Arizona has a well-known history of underperformance in education. And the situation, at least in our public school systems, does not appear to be improving. In 2021, WalletHub ranked Arizona #49 on its ranking of state public school systems. The state also had the third-worst dropout rate and the highest student-to-teacher ratio of any state.
This grim record for public education has led to disappointing outcomes for secondary education students, including low rates of college enrollment. For example, in 2018, about 52% of Arizona high school graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college within a year of graduation. Nationwide, however, about 69% of high school graduates enroll in higher education. Only about 29% of Arizona high school graduates enrolled in a four-year institution. These statistics are even worse in less privileged areas of the state, with 46 of Arizona’s 500 high schools reporting that no students went on to college. None.
To add insult to injury, according to College Board, Arizona ranks #14 among states for most expensive tuition at four-year public institutions. While the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, among others, provide strong in-state university options, with the promise of a median starting salary of around $55,000, tuition at these universities may not always be feasible. In addition, many who seek to advance their education, especially working adults and those with families, need flexibility beyond what is offered by traditional degree programs.
These statistics arguably expose gaps in how Arizona prepares its students to advance from high school into higher education, and in the higher education offerings the state provides for its students. Twenty-three other states, including all of Arizona’s neighbors, already allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees under certain conditions. With SB 1453 in effect, Arizona joins that list.
WHAT DOES THE NEW LAW DO?
The law allows community colleges to offer four-year degree programs under certain circumstances. First, the colleges must perform a detailed analysis of the proposed programs, including an examination of workforce needs, and a financial analysis of the program to determine its economic feasibility. In addition, all colleges planning to offer four-year programs must become nationally accredited. Finally, the schools must prove that any four-year programs to be offered will not duplicate existing degree programs at Arizona State University or the University of Arizona. These provisions are intended to ensure the degree programs are unique, expanding the offerings available to students, not creating competition between institutions. For example, the Maricopa County Community College District is investigating the possibility of expanded programs in areas like respiratory therapy, teaching, and fire science.
WILL THE NEW LAW HELP?
Proponents of the new law argue that allowing community colleges to offer four-year degree programs will create more opportunities for underrepresented populations and more choices for students contemplating higher education. At the bill’s signing, Governor Ducey said, “Today’s action is school choice for higher education. This is ‘Opportunity for All’ in action.” His news release cites research from the University of Washington finding that four-year degrees at community colleges in the state of Washington tended to have more students of color and also boasted higher employment match rates than university graduates. Proponents also hope to see these programs offer greater flexibility to students who may be working full-time while pursuing a degree.
On the other hand, opponents of the new bill argue that it will not increase college attainment in the state, nor improve declining enrollments at two-year institutions. Featured prominently among opponents were Arizona’s existing four-year institutions. The Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, and Northern Arizona University, sent a letter to Governor Ducey advocating against the bill. In the letter, the Board’s Chairman, Larry Penley, said, “what Arizona needs from community colleges, in addition to their technical certificates and degrees, are associate degrees that have a higher graduation rate.”
In any case, the earliest we are likely to see new four-year degree programs offered in Arizona is in the fall of 2023. This is due in part to the time it will take for community colleges to become accredited, develop degree programs and curricula, and attract students for the new programs. While it is unclear whether the new law will meaningfully improve Arizona’s education outcomes, the current dire situation demands new ideas and continued action.