Arizona’s four-year public universities can be likened to cousins. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, knows the dynamic well.
“Family arguments are probably the most intense arguments I’m ever in,” he said. “That’s like universities in the same state — they’re competing for students, they’re competing for status, they’re competing for resources.”
Crow is set to lead a new partnership between the state’s three public four-year universities that will share innovations and best practices surrounding student success, equity and cost-effectiveness. The Arizona Board of Regents approved the partnership, the Arizona Innovation Alliance, last week. Rita Cheng, president of Northern Arizona University, thinks members will focus on the positives and not the competition.
“We certainly compete with each other for students,” Cheng said. “I’m positive that those questions will come up now and again as we look to share best practices, but there’s so much room for improvement in Arizona’s student attainment and retention and completion.”
The state Board of Regents earmarked $700,000 for the partnership from its $8 million technology research and innovation fund. The new alliance between Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona follows the model of the University Innovation Alliance, an interstate coalition of 11 public research universities, including Arizona State.
Typically, resource and idea sharing between public colleges occurs at formal state systems, like those in New York and California, or among interstate college compacts like the University Innovation Alliance or the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
The University Innovation Alliance may have been successful in part because it included only one university from each state. The coalition was trying to avoid competition between members for students, Crow said.
“We said then that once the University Innovation Alliance was successful, we would try to create innovation alliances within the state,” Crow said. “So this is the first one — the Arizona Innovation Alliance. We’re very excited about bringing the three universities together to follow the same model of shared innovation targeting student success.”
Arizona’s three public universities have collaborated more often in recent years than they did previously, said Larry Penley, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the universities have shared testing capabilities, research, best practices and information about the virus and limiting its spread.
“Perhaps this is a time that it could work,” Penley said about a formal partnership between the institutions. “We have three presidents who are cooperating with one another. We’ve seen examples below the presidential level of cooperation, where it’s sometimes almost harder than it is at the presidential level.”
The Arizona Innovation Alliance’s goals are centered around student success. It aims to increase four-year and six-year graduation rates at the three universities and their branch campuses.
All three universities admit every qualified student and aren’t selective enough to turn away students who might not graduate, Penley said. This makes raising graduation rates difficult compared to other, more selective state universities, like the University of California, Berkeley, or the University of Michigan.
“When you look at our A students, those students are graduating at essentially the same or better rates than a school like the University of California, Berkeley,” he said. “But when you look at the B students, those students struggle.”
Just over half of first-time, full-time students graduate from the University of Arizona in four years, and nearly 65 percent graduate within six years, according to the university’s most recent graduation data. Arizona State University’s graduation rate is nearly identical — just under 55 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate in four years, and 70 percent graduate within six. At Northern Arizona University, the smallest of the three, graduation rates are lower. About 46 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate in four years, and 57 percent graduate within six years, said Cheng.
The new alliance also aims to increase the number of students admitted to all three universities who are eligible for Pell Grants and from low-income backgrounds. Sticker shock is still driving students away from Arizona’s public four-year colleges, Penley said. This year, tuition for full-time, in-state students at Arizona State is listed at $10,710. For full-time, in-state students at the University of Arizona, tuition costs $12,600 this year. Northern Arizona University boasts the lowest sticker price of the three, charging $10,650 in tuition for full-time, in-state students at its Flagstaff campus.
“When you get into lower quintiles of family income and you look at the nominal sticker price at university, plus the cost of books and everything else, it’s still a huge deterrent to African American, Native American and Latino students really going to school,” Penley said.
The Board of Regents has not settled on specific metrics for graduation rate or Pell enrollment goals, said Julie Newberg, a spokesperson for the board.
The universities will make some new hires as a result of the alliance. Fellows will serve as point people for the alliance at each university. The group will also hire a university innovation coordinator, Crow said.
Funding is often a barrier for college partnerships’ success, said Nancy Zimpher, the former chancellor of the State University of New York system and a strong advocate of cooperation among colleges. Without enough money to go around, it’s difficult to incentivize unaffiliated institutions to cooperate.
“I think the issue here is that funding — and the way we receive and utilize tuition revenue — is designed to be individual. It’s designed to be institution-specific, so we don’t have a financial reward system,” Zimpher said. “Even in states where the system exists, like SUNY, we had to create a financial reward system. We had to ask the governor and the Legislature to establish a fund for inter-institutional cooperation.”
Arizona’s public colleges have struggled to secure sufficient state funding. State higher education funding levels remain well below their pre-recession levels, according to the most recent State Higher Education Executive Officers Association State Higher Education Finance report. Increasingly, reliance on local tax revenue to fund higher education has translated to a steady divestment from public colleges.
The new alliance won’t require that the universities share financial resources. It also won’t be used to leverage more money from the state, Crow said. Instead, he hopes it will help the universities improve student outcomes without needing to spend more money.
Outside the alliance, the Arizona Board of Regents is pushing the state to create a statewide scholarship program that would assist low-income students with in-state college tuition and fees, similar to the Oklahoma Promise program or Georgia’s HOPE scholarship. Currently, less than 1 percent of higher education appropriations in the state go to student financial aid, according to the SHEF report.
The idea had some success in the Legislature last year, Penley said, but it was derailed when the pandemic hit.
“With March arriving and COVID-19, the Legislature ended early and essentially said, ‘We’re going to use the same budget as last year,’ and we lost traction,” he said. “I am hoping we will present the same agenda to the legislature and the governor one more time for the spring legislative session. I have hope that we’ll make progress this year.”
Inter-institution partnerships are popping up all over the country, Zimpher said. She expects that as colleges become increasingly strapped for resources, they will turn to each other for help.
“People are really starting to recognize the benefit of working together, like on transfer policies, student success policies and equity,” Zimpher said. “We can’t afford to be so isolated. There’s just not enough revenue to go around.”