PHOENIX — Governor Doug Ducey has signed into law a bill, SB1453, allowing community colleges to offer limited four-year college degrees.
The governor’s signature is the climax of years of efforts by advocates who worked to find alternatives to what critics argue is the expense for residents to get four-year degrees at Arizona’s three universities.
“We think about it all the time and how much it’s going to cost by the time they're of age,” said Christa Jones.
Jones is a mother of three and knows firsthand what her children will face when it’s time to consider going to college.
“Because we both paid for our own college it took us so many years to pay that debt off and it was always something that was holding over our head,” said Jones.
Like so many college graduates with mounting debt, life after school is delayed, and it’s a concern lawmakers in Arizona want to alleviate.
“Whatever we can do to educate our children and make those costs go down for them so that they don’t have to spend their entire lives trying to pay off debt they’ve already created would be wonderful,” said Jones.
“Arizona’s community colleges play a critical role in supporting students of all ages and equipping our workforce with skills and resources. Arizona is a school choice state, and today’s action is school choice for higher education," said Governor Ducey, in a statement.
Arizona is a school choice state, and today’s action is school choice for higher education. This is 'Opportunity for All' in action. It will allow students even more opportunities as they strengthen their education and expand their employment opportunities. 3/— Doug Ducey (@dougducey) May 4, 2021
With this new law, community colleges that offer baccalaureate degrees must meet a set of specific criteria, including an analysis of the feasibility of offering such a program, workforce need, and more.
“Enabling community colleges in our state to offer four-year degrees will make higher education dramatically more accessible and more affordable for Arizonans,” State Representative Becky Nutt (R) Clifton-District 14 said.
Representative Nutt is the author of the bill and a long-time supporter of allowing community colleges to offer four-year degrees. Her district encompasses much of Greenlee, Graham and Cochise counties.
“Arizonans, especially those in rural, low income and middle-class communities, will have more opportunities to help achieve educational and professional goals,” Nutt said.
Community colleges will be limited in what four-year degree programs they will be able to offer, but the cost will be significantly cheaper than the university tuition.
For example, the average in-state tuition at Arizona State University is between $9,000 and $12,000. At Maricopa County Community College, tuition for the first two years is capped at $1,020 a semester for 15 credit hours. The bill allows for a tuition increase of 150 percent for the last two years or a little more than $3,000 a semester.
"This is not an opportunity for community colleges to become the next university in the state of Arizona. It's really going to concentrate on an area where demand is currently not being met," Maricopa County Community College District's Interim Chancellor Dr. Steven Gonzales said. "For Maricopa Community Colleges, I could see us immediately focusing on areas of IT, nursing, healthcare, police and fire science, and even teacher education."
Dr. Gonzales said this would make Arizona the 24th state in the U.S. to offer this.
"There's quite a lot of work that needs to be done," Dr. Gonzales explained. "The statute would require that we conduct some analysis and be able to prove to our local governing boards that these are programs that are truly in demand and not competing with our universities. We would notify our universities of the degrees that we plan to offer and then, the internal work begins where there's the development of the curriculum, so we would of course engage our faculty and our staff to develop this. These would be accredited programs by the higher learning commission that currently accredits the work that we already do, so in total, this is about a year to year and a half worth of work. Our goal would be that by the fall of 2023 you would see Maricopa Community Colleges offering its first of bachelor's degrees across the county."
A spokesperson for Pima Community College told ABC15 sister station KGUN9 that they do not have any plans in place to offer four-year degrees. PCC cited its strong partnership with Arizona State University, allowing simple transitions and transfers through the MyPath2ASU program.
Dr. Clyne Namuo, the new interim President of Phoenix College, said Wednesday, "SB1453 will provide a pathway for current and future college students in the state of Arizona. This change will impact the Phoenix community for the better in a variety of ways. Phoenix College faculty and leadership will work collaboratively to identify the programs that will advance immediately for consideration as a four-year baccalaureate program."