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Ducey signs law permitting four-year degrees at community colleges

By: - May 4, 2021 1:51 pm

Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher. Photo via Facebook.

A new law will give Arizona students opportunities to get four-year degrees from community colleges and steer clear of increasingly expensive tuition rates at the state’s universities, a change that Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration said will reshape higher education in Arizona.

Ducey on Tuesday signed Senate Bill 1453, which allows community colleges outside of Maricopa and Pima counties to provide baccalaureate degrees. Community colleges in the two most populous counties will be able to do so as well, but they will be limited on the number of four-year degrees they can award each year.

In a press statement, the governor said the bill will train Arizona’s workforce while providing new opportunities for “populations that are historically underrepresented in higher education.”

“Arizona is a school choice state, and today’s action is school choice for higher education. This is ‘Opportunity for All’ in action. It will allow students even more opportunities as they strengthen their education and expand their employment opportunities,” Ducey said, citing the campaign slogan he used in 2014 and 2018.

Under the new law, community colleges outside of Maricopa and Pima Counties will be able to offer unlimited numbers of baccalaureate degrees. 

In the two biggest counties, which are home to Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, four-year degrees can’t be more than 5% of the total degrees and certifications they offer for the first four years they offer baccalaureate degrees, and can’t be more than 10% of total degrees after that.

According to the governor’s office, the law makes Arizona the 24th state to allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees. All of Arizona’s neighboring states already allow community colleges to do so.

Community college leaders from across the state announced in Ducey’s press statement that they plan to start offering four-year degrees, and rural and tribal leaders praised the new law. 

Eastern Arizona College President Todd Haynie said his school is “ready to support and work with students who want to get a higher education and build a career.” Lisa Rhine, president of Yavapai College, said the law will allow students to save money, draw more students to her school and build up the state’s workforce. And San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman Terry Rambler said tribal students will benefit from having more options available at San Carlos Apache College.

“When community colleges offer four-year degrees, it opens up opportunities for more students of all ages and backgrounds,” Haynie said.

Steven Gonzales, interim chancellor of the Maricopa County Community College District, cited health care, information technology, police and fire science, and education as the highest need areas that could be affected by the new law.

Community colleges must meet several criteria before being permitted to provide four-year B.A. programs. 

In addition to meeting accreditation and licensing requirements, they must demonstrate student demand and a need for the program they want to offer in their region, and must show that the program is financially sustainable. Tuition for the last two years of four-year degree programs at community colleges can’t exceed 150% of the tuition costs for other programs in their district.

They must also take steps to minimize stepping on the universities’ toes. Before approving a baccalaureate program, community college district boards must take into account whether it will unnecessarily duplicate university degree programs. If the community college is in the same county as a public university — Maricopa, Pima or Coconino, the home to Northern Arizona University — the university must be notified in advance and will have an opportunity to weigh in. However, universities cannot prevent community colleges from offering four-year degree programs.

The new law follows years of tuition and fee increases at Arizona’s three universities. According to data that Attorney General Mark Brnovich included in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents, tuition at the state’s universities saw an average increase of $5,217 from 2008-2017, the largest in the country. That figure doesn’t include non-tuition fees.

Universities and the Arizona Board of Regents opposed the bill. The regents argued that if community colleges are going to offer four-year degrees, they should do so within the partnership that Arizona established nearly 20 years ago, in which students can begin their degrees at community colleges and transfer to a university for their last year or two. And though the bill received overwhelming support in both chambers of the legislature — only three voted against it in the House and six in the Senate — some lawmakers questioned whether the bill addressed needs that weren’t already being addressed by the universities.

Spokespeople for the Board of Regents and Northern Arizona University did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Arizona State University declined to comment.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”

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