Arizona Sues Its Own Universities Over Tuition Increases

PHOENIX (CN) — Arizona’s attorney general sued his state’s public university system, claiming the Board of Regents has more than tripled tuition at its three public universities, in violation of the state constitution, which declares that “the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible.”

Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, sued the Arizona Board of Regents on Friday in Maricopa County Court.

Brnovich says that over the past 15 years the board has “dramatically and unconstitutionally” increased the cost of in-state tuition and mandatory fees by 315 to 370 percent, despite the “as nearly as free as possible” requirement of Article XI Section 6 of the Arizona Constitution.

Tuition and fees now range from $10,792 to $12,228 per year, and the full price of living on campus comes to $26,923 to $28,900 per year, Brnovich says.

Inflationary costs of attending Arizona State, the University of Arizona or Northern Arizona University have increased at “12 to 13 times the rate of increase of median family income,” Brnovich says.

In-state tuition in 2002 was only $2,600 per year.

“Every Arizonan dreams of being able to send their kids to college,” Brnovich said in a statement. “Within the last 15 years, Arizona went from having some of the most affordable public universities to having some of the most expensive. We believe the Board of Regents needs to be held accountable and answer tough questions for Arizona’s skyrocketing tuition rates.”

Brnovich says the board’s tuition-setting policy does not comply with the constitutional mandate because of “three types of unlawful conduct:”

Regents compare the costs of tuition with the amounts charged by “peer universities” in other states;

Regents consider the broad availability of student loans and aid, “essentially concluding that if students can borrow enough money, ABOR [Arizona Board of Regents] is cleared to charge it;”

and the regents misinterpret the “nearly free” mandate to mean “affordable.”

He also called out the board’s recent decision to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, calling it to an “illegal expenditure of public monies.”

By providing in-state tuition to students here under DACA, Brnovich claims the regents may trigger “a federal law that would forfeit Arizona’s ability to provide discounted in-state tuition to any of its residents, and instead would require all students, regardless of residency, to pay the same tuition charged to out-of-state tuition.”

President Trump announced a rollback of the DACA program last week, but said he would give Congress six months to kill it or enact it legislatively.

Board of Regents Chairman Bill Ridenour described Brnovich’s lawsuit as “full of attacks” without solutions.

“The challenges of rising college costs and student debt are not news,” Ridenour said Monday. “Rather, they are largely the result of a massive defunding of public higher education accompanied by a seismic cost shift that has moved education from a shared responsibility to an individual responsibility. Arizona is not unique in this regard; what is unique is that in FY 2017, Arizona ranks 48th in per capita support for higher education.”

Ridenour added that he welcomes the lawsuit as an opportunity to resolve what constitutes “instruction as nearly free as possible” as required by the state constitution.

Brnovich seeks an injunction to stop the board from raising tuition costs, asks the court to order the board to “sequester an amount of public monies equal to the amounts that are being paid to subsidize DACA students” in case the court finds it an illegal expenditure.

Unaddressed by Brnovich’s lawsuit is a possible solution to the university funding crisis. Also required by the Arizona Constitution is that income from state lands leased for agriculture be dedicated to public education. But Arizona leases land and delivers water on the cheap for water-hungry crops such as cotton, which is still grown on immense tracts of public land in the Arizona desert. Maricopa County alone, home to Phoenix, has 900 cotton farms that produce an average of 600,000 bales a year.

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