So far as I know, Democrat David Garcia is the only gubernatorial candidate who has a plan to allow all Arizonans
to attend state colleges tuition free, or the outline of a plan anyway. He wants to start by making community and tribal colleges tuition free, expand to top high school graduates attending Arizona universities and eventually include all in-state students. If other people running for state office have listed free college tuition as part of their platforms, I haven't seen it, but lots of candidates are springing up saying lots of things, and education promises to be a red-hot item this election season. We'll have to see where things go.
Details? Yes, details are important and Garcia promises to supply them in the next few months, but there's something more important. It's the basic question, "Should college be tuition free?" If the answer is yes, the next question is, how do we get there? It's within the realm of the possible if we think it's important enough, and we don't have to get all the way there right away. If we begin the journey toward free tuition, we'll keep moving closer to the goal.
The answer, by the way, is yes, making college tuition free is a good idea, a very good idea, especially when it comes to community college. Today, 14th grade is the new 12th grade. Looking backward, in the first half of the twentieth century, 12th grade was the new 6th grade. In the mid-nineteenth century, minimal literacy was replacing illiteracy as the new norm. Times change and educational needs to change with them. Post-high school education isn't a necessity, but it's a damn good thing to have, both for personal enrichment and increased economic prospects. It's not a luxury item which should be available only to those who can afford it. Community college should be free and readily available. High school students who have an interest in continuing their education, even if they're not sure what they want to do with it, should be encouraged to take the next step by knowing tuition won't be an issue. People who are years out of high school shouldn't have to check their bank accounts to see if they can afford college, or worry about saddling themselves with years of debt if they decide to go.
A variety of approaches to free college tuition are being tried in Tennessee, Oregon and New York (San Francisco has a program of its own), and other states are looking into it. It's real; the movement has legs. You can tell how real it is by the number of people going out of their way to write about why it's a bad idea, and even if it's a good idea, why it'll never work, and even if it works, why it won't be completely successful so don't even try. You don't have a lot of people running around trying to stamp out something they don't like unless they fear it's growing.
Can free tuition happen in Arizona? It'll be a tough haul, no question. We've been reducing, not increasing state spending on higher ed for years. Getting rid of college tuition costs money, and the current state government is allergic to things costing money, or most things anyway. But it doesn't have to be that way. When we think something is worth doing, somehow we find the money to do it. Cities and counties find money to help businesses get going, then give them tax breaks to keep them profitable. We've built stadiums. We've built light rail. We've built roads and bridges. Even with the state's stinginess over the past eight years, it somehow found money to pay for private school tuition. And somehow, year after year, Republicans always seem to find money to hand out to their wealthy friends in the form of tax cuts. They find the money they need in state funds meant to maintain and improve infrastructure and social services and education, kindergarten through graduate school. Lots of people think those funds and the things they do are important, but look, Republicans say (or would say if they were honest), it costs money to reduce taxes for our rich friends, and it's gotta come from somewhere.
If people in positions of power, in and out of politics, advocate for lowering college costs for students with the goal of making higher education as nearly free as possible, it can happen. These days, Arizona voters say they want to increase funding for education. Advocates can always harken back to the wise folks who included these words in the Arizona constitution:
“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.”
If they say it loud enough, if people running for office make tuition-free college part of their campaigns, if elected officials make it one of their priorities, we can make progress in that direction.