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Regents' report says student debt is rising

By Tate Williams
Arizona Summer Wildcat
July 7, 1999
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Arizona Summer Wildcat

Amid the ongoing debate between state legislators and university officials over education funding, one fact remains constant - the college student is suffering now more than ever.

While Arizona state legislators demand the three major universities tighten their belts and cut tuition, University of Arizona officials insist that low government funding will be the demise of quality public education.

Meanwhile, all parties acknowledge the fact that the burden of increasing higher education costs has fallen squarely on the backs of average college students and their families.

An Arizona Board of Regents report compiled during the last year stated that the number of indebted Arizona graduates has increased by 17 percent since 1992. The average amount of that student debt has nearly doubled, reaching $17,114.

"Some students will be able to leave the state with their own resources or in response to generous scholarship offers, but the common people of Arizona will be the losers if we do not find a better way to finance their education," said UA President Peter Likins in an e-mail interview Monday.

While the shift in financial aid from grants to loans is a nationwide trend, Likins said the system of Arizona financing causes undergraduate education to suffer as well.

He said attempts to keep tuition relatively low without increased state funding will ultimately wear away UA's ability to provide quality education.

The regents' report, "Cost, Price, and Value of a Higher Education," listed the three state universities, UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, at the low end of a list comparing tuition costs at 50 public universities.

"This would be a wonderful benefit for all of us if it were true that the University of Arizona received from the state Legislature the funds that were not received from our students, so we would have the resources we need to meet the requirements of an education of high quality," Likins said.

But the president said the lack of funding from the Legislature places the UA in danger of falling behind other universities.

"We regard this as a very serious problem, and yet we see little prospect of any real changes in our relative position when it comes to tuition revenues or allocations of tax dollars from the state," Likins said.

But Arizona Rep. Jean McGrath, a Republican, said the UA's financial dilemma stems from overspending and frivolous projects.

"They aren't very good at tightening their belts," she said. "They have virtually been pouring money into black holes."

McGrath said if the university would pass on certain land acquisitions and research parks, they could provide quality undergraduate education at a lower tuition.

She added that other universities' costs are irrelevant when evaluating Arizona tuition rates.

"It aggravates me - I find it unconscionable," McGrath said.

But Regents President Judy Gignac said tuition can only be so low until the quality of the resources dwindle.

Gignac said while she wants to lower the student debt amount, it is difficult to tell if the number of loans is excessive.

"Student borrowing is not just for education," she said. "We could never reach any kind of agreement on what constitutes an undue burden."

Gignac said that Arizona currently has three "extremely high quality" universities with a low cost per person.

What remains unanswered is how long can that quality last, and who will pay for it.

"The University of Arizona is succeeding despite these obstacles," Likins said, citing donations as a valuable resource. "We will continue to develop these sources, but we hope to do better with the more conventional sources of revenue for state universities as well."

Until the "poorly designed system" of UA funding is remedied, students and faculty will continue to suffer, he said.