Despite ever-increasing enrollments, Arizona’s universities have been challenged to expand higher education’s offerings to more individuals in less-costly and more sustainable manners.

At the same time, the university system is trying to accomplish this goal with less state support in a bad economy.

“By 2020, most of Northern Arizona University’s growth will be in high-access, low-cost alternatives to the main campus in Flagstaff,” NAU President John Haeger told the Arizona Board of Regents last week. “We will try to give students as much choice as possible.”

The president was presenting a report on university system architecture to the regents and to Gov. Jan Brewer, who attended the regents meeting Thursday at Arizona State University-West in Glendale.

Haeger told the governor about NAU’s efforts to expand the existing university structure to include more online courses, strengthen community college partnerships and develop branch campuses similar to those in Yuma and Prescott Valley.

Haeger said he hopes the branch campuses grow into regional universities. They will be less expensive because they would not have a research component, athletics or residence halls. Food service would be outsourced to local communities.

“These will be mission-focused campuses with structured academic programs,” he explained. “A student will be able to move through a degree in three years. We partner with the local community so it becomes an economic opportunity for the entire area, and without state funding we are counting on the local community to help us build the institution over time.”

ASU and the University of Arizona also presented their plans for increasing the number of baccalaureate degrees at a lower cost. The plans are part of ABOR’s Vision 2020 mission to double the number of baccalaureate degrees within 10 years to ensure the state’s national competitiveness.

Brewer challenged the universities to develop the models quickly and without state help.

“We have to be aggressive in implementing these models and not move at the normal university or governmental pace,” the governor said. “I know they require funding, and I wish it could be provided. But the need for cost-effective degrees has never been greater.”

Brewer told the regents that her latest budget protects education, which includes preserving the Maintenance of Effort requirements needed for federal stimulus funding.

Arizona’s universities reached the highest student enrollment in history, with more than 130,000 students attending one of the state’s three public institutions. They also saw the largest percent increase of student enrollment, with NAU leading the way at 7.4 percent, ASU at 4.7 percent and the UA at 3.6 percent.

“I applaud the universities for their enrollment growth,” said ABOR President Ernest Calderón. “That 7 percent increase (for NAU) is a miracle when compared to where we were six years ago.”

Nearly three-quarters of students in the system are Arizona residents. At the same time, however, Arizona ranks 50th in the nation for the percentage of high school graduates who go into higher education: 44 percent versus the national average of 61 percent.

ABOR executive director Joel Sideman announced that the board has signed an agreement with the Arizona Department of Education to track all students to learn where they are going after high school graduation. Previously, Arizona tracked only those high school students attending an Arizona public university or community college.

“This is no small accomplishment,” said Calderón, who thanked Arizona state Superintendent Tom Horne for his support.

In addition to greatly expanding information about Arizona’s college-going trends, the data also will provide insight into the state’s college preparedness efforts.