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Time to drop tuition lawsuit

Illustration by Mike Padilla
By Matt Gray
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, February 21, 2005
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Now that tuition-hike season is in full swing (it's the second-most wonderful time of the year), people are coming out of the woodwork to throw in their two cents. This includes the quixotic group of current and former students that are seeking to solve the state's higher-education funding problems through litigation.

This week the plaintiffs, led by former UA student and former state Rep. John Kromko, made their case once again. They argue that because the Arizona Constitution requires all state educational institutions to be "as nearly free as possible," last year's tuition increase was illegal. A state trial judge threw the case out a year ago, but Kromko and associates have moved up to the court of appeals.

Kromko seems quite optimistic about his chances. Earlier this week he explained that back when he was in school in the '60s, "everyone thought tuition was illegal under the constitution." If that's true, then perhaps everyone in the '60s was actually as high as the music from the era would lead us to believe. Actually, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that state universities can constitutionally charge for their services way back in 1935. Since then, several people have tried to invoke the "nearly free as possible" clause to stop tuition schemes, but none have been successful.

Thankfully, the Arizona courts are never going to assert themselves as the "Super Board of Regents" to decide which tuition and fee increases are OK and which are not. While the actual Arizona Board of Regents does seem to listen more to university presidents than student body presidents, it is a group of hard-working individuals that are dedicated to improving higher education in Arizona. Their jobs are hard enough without a panel of judges looking over their shoulders.

Matt Gray

The courts are a good place to turn with some problems, but the rising cost of a university education is not one of them. The university officials that have requested higher tuition and fees for the past several years do not have sinister intentions. They are trying to make the state universities the best they can be, not trying to oppress us poor students into surrendering our rights. There is no Prince John here, so we don't need anyone rushing to court to fill the role of Robin Hood.

Instead, these individuals should add their concerns to the community dialogue that has already begun and will continue until the regents make their decision. There are, as always, tough choices ahead, and university leaders can use all the help they can get.

While the burden on students is an important part of the tuition picture, it is certainly not the only factor to consider. After all, what good is an education that is "as nearly free as possible" if it is also "as nearly useless as possible." No lawsuit can stop the legislature's cuts in education funding, assure that the university's curriculum keeps up with technology, or prevent a talented professor from leaving for a job that pays better. In a university, like everything else in life, you get what you pay for.

Of course, that doesn't mean that there aren't limits on how high tuition should climb. When officials ask for too much from the students, the students need to call them on it, but they should make their case to the regents, not to a judge. The alternative plan proposed by student government leaders this week is a good example of how students can advocate their interests while working toward a constructive solution.

When the drafters of the Arizona Constitution wrote that public education in this state must be "as nearly free as possible," they weren't condemning the universities to mediocrity anytime the legislature failed to provide adequate funding to run the entire system. And while invoking that phrase in court may be a satisfying way to tilt at windmills, it will never result in lower tuition. If anything, the suit has only added to the university's costs by adding lawyer's fees.

The plaintiffs' desire to help students is admirable, but it is currently misdirected. Instead of working to usurp the board of regents, Kromko and the others should be working with them to find a solution that protects the students' interest in receiving a great education without going bankrupt.

Matt Gray is a second-year law student. He can be reached at

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