The Arizona Desert Lamp

What’s free as possible?

Posted in Uncategorized by Evan Lisull on 29 April 2009

“The university and all other state educational institutions shall be open to students of both sexes, and the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible.”

Arizona State Constitution, Art. 11, Sec. 6

This phrase has been stretched far beyond its past-due date, trumpeted as though it were some God-ordained right (even as actual rights – freedom of association, freedom of speech – are chipped away without so much as a pause). It is cited by students like scripture, as they complain on the elliptical machine about the proposed tuition increases. Later, loafing in a leather chair in the air-conditioned lobby of their dorm, they text their friends: “$1100 – WTF?”

You get the point. Perhaps Rep. Pearce is posturing when he calls the universities “country clubs,” but behind that bluster is a kernel of truth: we’re a long way from Cicero by lantern light. The original tuition cap, adjusted for inflation, works out to $1,600. And indeed, with $1,600, you can get a very nice tent and a collection of books. But if we’re already all-in on the modern university thing, then one can’t expect to pay traditional university prices.

Practically, though, there seems to be a bigger issue in the phrase – what exactly is “as nearly free as possible” referring to? The Board of Regents has taken the phrase to be a comparative one – hence, we have to be “as nearly as free as possible” when compared to other equivalent schools. (But what equivalent? Aye, there’s the rub.) Yet it’s odd to assert that the phrase was drafted for the purpose of trumping other states, unless the state constitution was written by a nascent marketing crew. “Cacti? Forget the cacti – education’s free as possible here! You can’t get that in Virginia, now can you?” Rather, the statement was probably intended to be an intrastate guarantee, independent of other considerations.

So as Tom Rex of ASU says, it’s broadly a statement of purpose. But more than that, it doesn’t guarantee a type of education; rather, it’s a statement for the entire system. This “as nearly free as possible” still exists – it’s called Pima Community College. If you want the ritzier, research-based education offered by the UA, you should be prepared to fork over more. Ideally, this would get us back to the Three University Model – and while this would probably make the UA itself much more expensive (especially for out-of-state students), it should also make the school much more elite.

As important as minimizing cost to Arizona students should be, there is also something to be said for diversity in higher education offerings. Increasingly, the UA is becoming ASUSouth; and while this may help the state in adhering to this throwaway phrase, it punishes her best students by forcing them to go elsewhere to get a top-notch education.


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