PHOENIX -- It's taken at least four decades.
But Arizona's community colleges appear to be on the verge of being able to offer four-year degrees.
On a 24-6 vote Wednesday, the Senate gave final approval to legislation setting out the conditions for these traditional two-year and certificate institutions to start offering baccalaureate degrees. With the House already having approved, the only thing that remains now is a decision by Gov. Doug Ducey.
An aide to the governor said he does not comment on pending legislation.
Ducey is likely to face a last-ditch effort by the Arizona Board of Regents which has for at least 40 years fought any effort to infringe on what it sees as its turf as the governing body of the state's three universities. Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, one of the champions of SB 1453, said they tried to quash this bill, even after proponents included much of what the universities wanted limiting when and how such upper division courses can be offered.
There was no immediate response from the regents.
Boyer said he remains concerned that even if the bill becomes law the universities will attempt to stymie new course offerings at community colleges. But he told Capitol Media Services that while the measure does give an opportunity for university input into community college plans, it does not give them veto power.
Central to the multi-decade battle has been the question of both physical and fiscal accessibility of higher education.
Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton, has argued for years that the current system requires rural students who want four-year degree to leave their homes. That, she said, affect not only families but also undermines efforts to promote local economic development.
And Nutt said many community colleges already have buildings and other infrastructure in place that would allow them to start offering four-year degrees without new investment and without raising local taxes.
The regents, by contrast, have countered there is no real need.
Larry Penley, chairman of the board, has argued that the university already have working relationships with community colleges around the state, partnering in ways to offer four-year degrees. And he has told lawmakers there is reduced tuition for university courses that are taught on community college campuses.
Those objections hit home with some lawmakers.
Rosanna Gabaldon, D-Green Valley, said she sees this as duplicating existing efforts by universities to help community college students get a four-year degree. And that, she said, makes no sense financially.
"Arizona's already underfunding our public education,'' she said. "I believe this bill will make our community colleges and public universities compete for that same funding,'' she said.
Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said he has similar concerns. And Livingston said he fears that the additional costs of offering upper-division courses comes with a price tag, whether higher local property taxes or from the state general fund.
"It would be shocking if they don't ask for more money,'' he said.
But Livingston said he agreed to support the plan for a simple reason.
"It expands school choice,'' he said. "It expands competition in the education setting, which is very important to me.''
And Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said while she fears "cannibalizing limited resources'' she still believes that allowing community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees is "a worthy goal.''
Assuming Ducey signs the measure, it does not provide carte blanche for the schools to start offering bachelor's degrees.
It first requires a district governing board to determine if there is a local workforce need for the degrees that would be offered. There also would need to be a study of the costs and whether a similar degree is offered by other Arizona colleges.
There also are specific restrictions on new programs offered in Pima and Maricopa counties, with community college limited to offering no more than 5% of their degrees at the baccalaureate level for the first four years and, after that, capped at 10%. They also cannot charge tuition for those courses for juniors and seniors that is 150% higher than the fees for courses in the first two years.
And before new degrees could be offered, public universities also would be given a chance to provide a written response to any planned community college degrees.
All of that, Boyer said, was added to address concerns by the regents. But he said that it was the absence of veto power over new community college degrees that led to university opposition.
Costs to students are an issue.
Typical tuition at state universities runs north of $9,000 a year and up to more than $12,000.
By contrast, Pima Community College charges a base rate $1,305 for 15 credit hours, the typical load for one semester, though some programs do have surcharges. Doubling that for an annual cost and using the 150% cap in the legislation, that still comes out at less than $4,000 a year.
At Maricopa Community Colleges there is a flat rate of $1,020 per semester, putting the cap at slightly more than $3,000 annually.
Not all community colleges are interested, at least not now, in offering four-year degrees.
CAC President Jackie Elliott said earlier whne the bill was introduced that the college was pleased with its current partnerships with four-year institutions.
“While Central Arizona College recognizes that many of our rural community college districts do not have the proximity to the state’s four-year institutions,” Elliott said, “CAC is situated conveniently, allowing for strong partnerships with the state’s four-year institutions.”
Elliott said the college’s current priority is to grow the number of 90/30 credit programs, which allow community college students to transfer 75% of bachelor’s degree work to four-year institutions. The school is already involved in several regional partnerships and programs that could address the kind of workforce training the bill hoped to engender.
“As Pinal County’s workforce needs grow and evolve, CAC will continue to strategically evaluate the needs of the county and student interests to inform how the college can best meet those needs and interests,” Elliott said.
The universities have managed to forestall competition now for decades.
In 1983, for example, William Reilly, then chairman of the Board of Regents, beat back a similar bill amid warnings to lawmakers there are unknown implications. Among those, he said, is whether Arizona students will not be able to get a job with a degree from a community college.
And Gary Munsinger who was a vice president at the University of Arizona, argued that allowing community colleges to expand their programs could hurt what he said has been an effective and efficient post-secondary education system in Arizona.