A bill that would require nearly all students at Arizona's state universities to pay at least $2,000 a year for their education—without relying on grants or scholarships—passed a key committee in the Arizona House of Representatives last week.
House Bill 2675 was approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Feb. 22 on a 7-6 vote, with Republicans Vic Williams and Steve Urie joining Democrats to vote against the bill.
If the bill becomes law, it would require students to pay a minimum of $2,000 of their yearly tuition out of pocket. Students could not use grants, scholarships or gifts from the university to cover the last $2,000, but could use outside sources such as student loans.
Rep. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican, said during the hearing that college students need to have more "skin in the game" when paying for their higher education.
"The university gives out a large amount of unearned tuition subsidies," said Kavanagh, one of the bill's primary sponsors. "In difficult economic times, it didn't make much sense to give away so much free college-tuition money. And in addition, there are other negative consequences of making tuition totally free."
Students who have a full academic scholarship or an athletic scholarship would be exempt from the requirement, because they contribute to making the school a better institution, Kavanagh said.
"Academic scholars have earned the tuition aid, and by raising the intellectual level of the university, they improve the educational environment for everybody, and they raise the school's national rating and enhance the value of everyone's degree," he said. "Athletic scholars contribute to the school's spirit, and athletic teams bring in millions of dollars to the university. I'm not going to be the one who ends the football and basketball programs."
As for other students, he said, "I'm sure they contribute in terms of community service and school spirit, but we don't pay for that."
Rep. Matt Heinz, a Tucson Democrat who voted against the bill during the Appropriations Committee hearing, said the legislation creates "an additional barrier for our young adults to get the university education that so many of them want and need."
Heinz attempted to amend the bill to spare veterans attending college with the help of the GI Bill from the $2,000 requirement, but Republicans on the committee shot down the amendment.
"Kavanagh's bill exempts athletes and people on full academic scholarship," Heinz said. "The least we can do is put in my amendment that protects active-duty members of our military, National Guard and those who have been honorably discharged from the Armed Services."
Brandon Patrick, an Air Force veteran and Arabic translator who served in Afghanistan and Iraq before leaving the service and enrolling at the UA with the help of the GI Bill, said "the whole thing is ridiculous."
"John Kavanagh thinks that you should exempt student athletes but not veterans, because athletes apparently give more," said Patrick, who is planning a run for the state House this year on the Democratic ticket. "This kind of legislation hurts the entire state. It drives companies and employers away, because we continue to demonize education."
Kavanagh said his bill really won't hurt students from low-income families, because if tuition is $9,000, "they'll still be eligible for $7,000 of unearned tuition per year." Kavanagh said he factored in another $1,500 per year for books and fees to come up with a total of $14,000 that students will need over four years, "which they could easily pay with outside help or loans."
"Given that you can't buy a Chevy Sonic for $14,000, and university degrees are worth a lot more than Chevy Sonics, I think the assumption of a small amount of debt is reasonable," he said.
In difficult economic times, Kavanagh said, it's not reasonable to expect taxpayers to be giving a university education to those who haven't earned it. He said that when students don't have to pay anything for their education, more of them will go to a university instead of a community college—and those students might be better served at a community college.
"By luring them to universities, these students often wind up failing out or dropping out, and that lowers the graduation rates of the universities, which lowers their standings in national ratings and lowers value of degrees," Kavanagh said.
Bob McLendon, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, called HB 2675 "totally unfair." He said the bill means withholding a chance at higher education for some people, and added that students who put in the effort to obtain scholarships shouldn't have to pay the $2,000.
"I think it's a discouraging piece of legislation when we're trying to actually grow the number of people in Arizona who are educated with at least a bachelor's degree, and to grow our work force," McLendon said.
Rep. Steve Farley, a Tucson Democrat, said the bill is a "horrible, horrible idea ... that punishes kids because their families don't have any money, and keeps kids from being able to benefit from education and help our economy."
Farley said the bill is shameful, because everyone needs to be contributing to the economy right now—just as every student who attends a university contributes to the school.
"I would argue that the students in poverty are making more of a contribution," he said. "They honor and treasure this more than the kids who may be from wealthy families and have gotten everything they ever wanted in their lives."
He said this bill would cut off a college education for motivated and hard-working people, and keep them trapped in a cycle of poverty.
"It's really, really disappointing. With our economy in the dumps, we need every possible advantage we have to be able to come back," Farley said.