By Howard Fischer

Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX — Arizona’s community colleges are now on the path to awarding four-year degrees if they want.

Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday signed legislation to permit these local institutions to offer baccalaureate degrees -- and do so without having to first enter into a joint program with one of the state’s three universities.

“Arizona’s community colleges play a critical role in supporting students of all ages and equipping our workforce with skills and resources,’’ the governor said in a prepared statement.

The governor also noted that Arizona has gained a reputation of being a “school choice’’ state, at least at the K-12 level, with parents able to choose among traditional district schools -- and not just in their own neighborhoods -- as well as charter schools as well as religious and private schools.

“Today’s action is school choice for higher education,’’ Ducey said. “It will allow students even more opportunities as they strengthen their education and expand their employment opportunities.’’

The governor’s action comes despite a last-ditch bid by Larry Penley, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, urging him to reject the legislation and keep the schools in their traditional roles including technical certificates, two-year degrees and feeding students into the state’s three universities.

“There is little evidence to support the need for a substantial change in Arizona higher education structure,’’ Penley wrote to the governor on Monday in a letter obtained by Capitol Media Services.

Penley also argued that the move is unnecessary, as the regents have four-year programs they operate in collaboration with community colleges in Apache, Graham, Maricopa, Mohave, Yavapai and Yuma counties.

Tuesday’s decision drew praise from Steven Gonzales, chancellor of the Maricopa Community Colleges, who has pushed for the new permission.

He told Capitol Media Services the aim is not to compete with the university system but to supplement it. Gonzales said there are specific needs for things like more teachers and nurses than the university system is turning out. And Gonzales said these programs can be conducted at far less cost than the universities charge in tuition, all without raising local property taxes.

None of this will happen immediately.

The new law requires governing boards to determine whether to offer four-year degrees based on both the need, as determined by student demand and workforce gaps, as well as the financial requirements necessary to sustain the program.

Programs also have to be accredited by the same agencies that have purview over university programs.

And colleges are required to let state universities know of the programs they are developing.

But the statute also is clear: Universities have no veto power. And that was one of the things the Board of Regents wanted.

Lawmakers added some additional restrictions on the college systems in Pima and Maricopa counties, the ones most likely to compete for students with the two main state universities.

For the first four years, no more than 5% of total degree and certification can be for four-year programs, a figure that rises to no more than 10% after that. And for both systems, the tuition for those upper division courses -- for juniors and seniors -- can be no more than 150% what they charge for all other courses.

Gonzales, whose schools now charge $85 a credit hour, said he doesn’t see those cost limits as a problem.

“We already have the faculty and staff in place,’’ he said. Gonzales said the focus will be on programs where there is already equipment and buildings in place or where it might require “just a little bit more to ensure we are able to deliver that bachelor’s degree with the quality that is necessary.’’

And Gonzales said it is wrong to believe that community colleges can’t deliver quality degrees within the cost limits just because the state university system charges in excess of $500 a credit hour.

“Our universities provide 100- and 200-level courses’’ for first- and second-year students, he noted. Those are many of the same courses the community colleges already offer for students who plan to go on for four-year degrees.

“And we already do it at a fraction of the cost,’’ Gonzales said. “My question to the universities would be, ‘Why do you charge so much for the 100- and 200-level courses when we can demonstrate we can do it at $85 a credit hour?’ ‘’

Gonzales is not alone in his belief that the community college system has something more to offer.

“There are a wide range of jobs available across the state, and we are preparing our students to meet that demand and reach their goals,’’ said Lisa Rhone, president of Yavapai College in her own prepared statement. “Allowing community colleges like Yavapai College to offer four-year degrees will save students money, draw more students to our schools and build up our workforce.’’

Todd Hayne, president of Eastern Arizona College said his institution is “ready to support and work with students who want to get a higher education and build a career.’’

EAC has been at the forefront of what has now been a four-decade fight, with Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton, serving most recently as the school’s champion at the Capitol. Nutt has complained for years that the current system requires rural students who want four-year degrees to leave their homes, affecting families and undermining efforts to promote local economic development.

That was also an issue for Sierra Vista Mayor Rick Mueller.

“It will aid our ability to develop and maintain a skilled local workforce qualified to work high tech and medical jobs we have, which will bolster Sierra Vista’s economic development efforts and benefit our surrounding rural communities,’’ he said in his own prepared statement.

Ducey said the idea is hardly unique, saying 23 other states have similar systems which allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees in certain circumstances.

Penley, in trying to convince the governor to veto the measure, said there is no need, saying enrollment in universities has doubled since 2002.

“What Arizona needs from community colleges, in addition to their technical certificates and degrees, are associate degrees that have a higher graduation rate,’’ he wrote, though he offered no specifics.

Gonzales said he does not see community colleges in direct competition with universities for students. He said the average age for students in his system is between 24 and 26.

“A typical 25- or 26-year-old, if he or she decides to go back to college or to start college, they are not likely to start at the university,’’ Gonzales said. “They’re going to come to use because of that support we provide, the fact that we’ve got smaller campuses situated throughout the county, and the fact that we’re closer to them than some of the universities are.’’

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