Arizona attorney general defends decision to challenge university tuition in court

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A new report on the cost of attending a college found that it is less expensive to obtain a degree from a four-year university now than it was in 2008.

The report, released by the Arizona Board of Regents, comes in response to a lawsuit filed last year Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who began to look into the rising cost of tuition after the regents voted in August to continue to allow Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students take advantage of in-state tuition.

The report’s findings have not swayed Brnovich, who responds to its findings with the Mark Twain quote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”

Brnovich says universities have the wrong formula in crafting the cost of education because they aren’t focusing on a mandate in the Arizona constitution that says higher education should be “as nearly free as possible.” According to Brnovich, tuition for Arizona universities have become unreasonably high and points to DACA student’s in-state tuition as  an illegal subsidy that inflates the cost of college.

The regents argue there’s a difference between the price and cost of a degree. The price is the sticker on the front, says Elleen Klein, president of the regents, but tuition assistance such as financial aid lowers the cost considerably. Brnovich disagrees and believes that the framers of the state’s constitution would not correlate thousands of dollars of student loan debt as being synonymous with receiving a nearly free education.

Brnovich also has become critical of the way universities spend their money, singling out full-page newspaper advertisement for Arizona State University and the universities real estate investments as wasteful spending that could be cut out to lower tuition costs.

“If they can afford to find $18 million in the couch cushions for coaches then why can’t they get rid of the athletic fees?” Brnovich says.

Ted Simons: A recent study by the state Board of Regents shows that the cost of a college degree in Arizona is about $16,000 per student. Which when adjusted for inflation is less per student in expenditures than 2008. But are state universities still charging too much? That question is behind a lawsuit by our next guest Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Good to see you again, thanks for joining us. Have you seen the study?

Attorney General Mark Brnovich: We have seen it

Ted Simons: What do you think of it?

Attorney General Mark Brnovich: I think Mark Twain once famously said that there is three kinds of lies: Lies, damn lies and statistics and I think the study itself answers some questions but some questions went completely unanswered which I think is really unfortunate because issues dealing with the real cost. The things that we have talked questions three, questions five in that study. Dealing with the cost, dealing with research versus actual instruction in the classroom they blew off and the fifth question they were supposed to answer regarding online learning versus none. They said everything was too integrated to answer two of the fundamental questions we raised in the lawsuit they completely blew off.

Ted Simons: And yet the university spending $16,000 per student. Less than average for four-year universities. Does this including research and non-research institutions. What do you make of that?

Mark Brnovich: I think at the end of the day Ted, there is a fundamental problem and as a middle class parent and to someone who attended Arizona State University. When I went ASU in the 1980’s it was $625 a semester. I could work a part-time job in the summer and when I graduated, I had zero debt. There is a reason why the framers of our constitution put in a provision that says education higher education is supposed to be nearly as free as possible. The question is, are they meeting that mandate. So you can throw up a lot of numbers. I think ultimately the parents out there need to ask themselves, who do you want to believe a bunch of Statistics thrown out by the university or your own lying eyes.

Ted Simons: We had the chairperson of the board of regions talking about this particular issue and about your lawsuit and she says basically that you are conflating price and cost. Here’s what she had to say:

Elleen Klein: The case really hinges on what the advertised price is but that is not necessarily the same as the cost that’s being born by the students. What we believe is contemplated by the constitution is making sure that the cost of education is nearly as free as possible and we manage that through the use of financial aid.

Ted Simons: She’s basically as you just heard that with financial aid and other aspects, the cost, you are looking at the price, you’re seeing that big number and that increase over the past 10-15 some odd years. She is saying the absolute cost by way of this study is nowhere near what you are claiming it is.

Mark Brnovich: Once again, I will tell you I spent a lot of times at my daughter's volleyball games and basketball games and I don't know any parent I know is paying the amount that the university is claiming that the average student plays. I don't know if there is a group of outliers out there that are paying absolutely nothing and the rest of the middle class tax payers are paying for it when they have to pay for tuition for their kids. But it is simply not true Ted and the second part of this is that I think this is important, part of our lawsuit was based on when the universities, when the Board of Regents switched the formula. There was a time 15 years ago when we were in the bottom third, that was the requirement. Our universities would be in the bottom third when it came to actual cost. As soon as that restriction was removed and they changed the formula, tuition shot up like a rocket it has risen 325, to 324-325 times faster than the rate of inflation. 12 times faster than the median income in Arizona. So the reality they can say all they want but all the actual cost or what people are saying. They can say all they want, the reality is that most middle class parents here in Arizona are paying more than they say or alternatively Ted. Just because you can get jacked up with a bunch of loans that is not what the framers of the constitution wanted. They didn't say you should have the availability to get $50,000 in debt to get an education. They said nearly as free as possible.

Ted Simons: So again, when the board of regions and when those who look at the lawsuit say it’s unnecessary. We’ll talk about that aspect in a second here, but when they say that when you talk to your friends and you are out there in the volleyball games and all that sort of business and they say they are not paying what the university says the cost are. Are they also paying the upper price, the absolute top price of tuition, which is used in some of these how high tuition has increased numbers?

Mark Brnovich: It depends, the numbers all over the board. That’s part of the problem so I think the university can cherry-pick data to come up with a number that suits them. I saw an op-ed last week where someone on the universities behalf. I heard Dr. Crow the ASU make the same argument that tuition is now cost less than when I went to ASU in the 1980s and that is simply not true. There may be a group of kids out there or young adults or even single parents, a working mom that are going to the university and not paying a dime and maybe that’s why their numbers or averages are all skewed but I know people, I don't know anyone that is only paying $2,000 a year for tuition at any of the area colleges.

So when the board of regions say this is not really a fight, you’re making the fight about the surface issue, you say?

I find it dripping with irony that the universities are going to lecture us on cost. When we talked to them we sat down they said it was bare bones and they were charging the absolute minimum and there is no way they can cut any fees or do anything with the tuition and meanwhile they can turn mediocre coaches into billionaires but they can’t meet the constitutional mandate to make education nearly as free as possible. My point is they are using the wrong formula and not focusing on their constitutional mandate.

Ted Simons: You realize those, many of the coaches are paid in different pots different silos.

Mark Brnovich: Well once again, this is part of the university shell game. When it comes to research cost versus non-research cost we are not getting provided the data. For example ASU foundation doesn't believe in subject to public records request. So a lot of these questions, these issues we don’t know the answers too. There is stuff where ASU is taking out full-page ads, reality companies where they have hotels and apartments that are much better. You’re a TV personal you may live in a swanky nice place like this. But for someone like me I’m asking a question if the universities can affordable care act to put up these kinds of building and invest in this kind of real estate why can't they afford to make tuition cheaper which is their mission, which is their constitutional mandate?

Ted Simons: Do you see any way to bridge the argument her because again we have…Eileen Klein is the chair of the board. She basically is saying that you have just confused price and cost. If the cost were as prohibited as you are saying, do you think the enrollment would be advanced as much as it has? Would the school be as successful as it has?

Mark Brnovich: Elleen is not her but I would ask her this; why does it cost more to attend Arizona state university online than it does in person? That seems counter-intuitive. Why is it that it takes now more and more credit hours or less and less credit hours to become -- they are trying to eliminate becoming a part-time student and part of that is because that effects the rankings because they want to increase their four-year tuition rate. There’s all these things universities do, they oppose community colleges offering four-year degrees and we talked about this las time I was here. Other school systems the University of Wisconsin where you have 13 colleges as part of the University of Wisconsin system. Only two of them are research universities. Can't we come up with something here Ted in Arizona where we have research universities and you have options that are non-research universities?

Ted Simons: I think the other side would ask you why isn't the legislature included in this lawsuit?

Mark Brnovich: I think at the end of the day, the university regions are the ones that come up with the formula. They’re the ones that are allowing the universities to charge these fees. You might have recently seen the auditor general report recently. You have the universities charging athletic fees, where the money is going half a million dollars to go out on travel and recruiting. Money is being used on green fees NAU to encourage to the consumption of box wine. There is all of these ridiculous things they’re using these fees and to me, you brought up the issue of who is paying for the coaches and who is not and it is coming from a separate pot. I would ask you this, if they can afford to find $18 million in the couch cushion to pay two football coaches why can't they find money to eliminate the athletic fee?

Ted Simons: And they would ask you, why can't you go after the legislature with as much vim and vigor as you’re going after the universities?

Mark Brnovich: Right now the constitutional mandate is to make education nearly as free as possible. When the universities change the formula to something that is constitutional, when they can justify the actual cost increase instead of shooting it straight up like a rocket, when they make sure it is nearly as free as possible, then that will be the next question and debate. I will tell you this Ted let me just make sure I get this across. You keep talking about the cost versus what the actual cost are. My question is this next time the regents or Michael Crow comes on if the actual cost is only what people are paying is $2-$3,000 then why isn't that the cost of tuition?

Ted Simons: I can answer it for you, it is financial aid.

Mark Brnovich: So in other words, some students', their ability, the university is going to pick and choose winners of who can get financial aid or those grants and otherwise some kids going to get jacked up with $50,000 in debt. That is not the answer?

Ted Simons: We have to stop you right there. Good to see you again, thanks for joining us. That is it for now. I am Ted Simons. Thank you for joining us. You have a great evening.

Mark Brnovich: Arizona Attorney General

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