University system architecture presents challenges, opportunities

Regents return to spring tuition cycleThe Arizona Board of Regents will set tuition and fees in the spring after setting rates in the fall for three years.

The board voted last week in Tempe to set rates at its March meeting following the three university presidents’ tuition recommendations and public hearings.

The tuition and fee process for Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona changed to fall in 2006 to provide earlier notice for students. However, the board returned to the spring cycle to allow universities to have a better estimate of upcoming state budgets and fall enrollment.

Arizona’s public universities continue to explore ways to double the number of baccalaureate degrees by 2020 to ensure the state’s national competitiveness, but questions remain as to funding and the respective missions of the universities in serving that need.

The Arizona Board of Regents is looking to revise the current structure, or architecture, of the university system to offer students lower-cost options to obtaining baccalaureate degrees. The three university presidents discussed potential plans with the regents last week during a board meeting in Tempe.

Northern Arizona University President John Haeger shared his vision of a system of branch campuses that could evolve into regional universities.

“Our approach to system architecture is extraordinarily broad because we have been doing this for 25-30 years,” Haeger noted in describing the on-site and online programs NAU offers at more than 30 sites statewide in conjunction with community colleges.

Rather than building new campuses, Haeger proposes that NAU expand existing community college partnerships to develop autonomous, teaching-focused branch campuses. These branch campuses may lead to regional universities that offer four-year degrees in a small number of high-need programs identified by the respective communities.

NAU currently has one branch campus in Yuma and is partnering with Yavapai College to open another branch campus—
NAU-Yavapai. NAU’s office is scheduled to open Aug. 17 in Prescott Valley. Programs being considered for fall 2010 include education, business, administration of justice and health sciences.

Haeger met with Yavapai College President Jim Horton and his staff Aug. 3 to discuss details. “We all agreed that this be a true experiment—maybe no semesters, 12-month programming, self-paced learning and on-site and online classes melded into the same degree program.

“I firmly believe the solution to more baccalaureate degrees relates to using technology in far more efficient ways than we currently do,” he added.

Haeger told the regents that the NAU-Yavapai model could cost 35 percent less than attending the main Flagstaff campus that has a research mission and offers a residential experience. At the same time, however, the new model will generate less revenue and will require additional funding.

Regent Anne Mariucci said the board will need to find a balance between the various directions posed by the universities to offer lower-cost options for baccalaureate degrees to avoid duplication. Regent Fred Boice voiced his support for building partnerships with community colleges and cautioned that new initiatives by the universities necessitate investment, which will be difficult in a down economy.

“It’s like putting perfume on a pig if we don’t have the funding.” Boice said.

Regents President Ernest Calderón acknowledged that funding will not be available for all the university options being explored, but he also noted that Arizonans want choices for pursuing a higher education. Calderón said the board will consider the various university options at its December meeting.

In other action, the regents granted project approval to NAU’s health and learning center. Costs have been reduced by just over $9 million to $106.7 million for the project, which is funded in large part by student fees. The university hopes to begin construction in the fall after receiving a favorable review from the legislative Joint Committee on Capital Review.

The regents also approved authority for NAU to issue system revenue bonds to finance the health and learning center and the associated northeast campus utilities extensions and relocation of the NAU Police Department to the southern end of campus.