Arizona Board of Regents chairman blasts attorney general over tuition lawsuit

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Higher education reporter Anne Ryman of The Arizona Republic gives five tips to find free money for college. Hannah Gaber/azcentral.com

Arizona Board of Regents Chairman Bill Ridenour said the state’s legal challenge to college tuition increases is “full of attacks, but offers no constructive remedies.”

Ridenour, in a statement released Monday, said Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s lawsuit “makes for good headlines” but does nothing to change the financial burden for students and their families.

Regents instead blame a “massive defunding of public higher education” for the rising cost of college and said the solution will not be found at the courthouse. 

Ridenour said the regents first learned of the lawsuit through the media. 

“We take such pride. We’re a civilian board, and we work very, very hard at these issues especially around access and affordability, and to all of a sudden have a suit dropped on us indicating we aren’t fulfilling the constitutional duties is a slap in the face,” Ridenour said in an interview with The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com.

Rates up as much as 370% over 15 years

Brnovich filed the suit on Friday in Maricopa County Superior Court against the regents challenging in-state tuition increases at the state’s three universities that have risen by as much as 370 percent over the past 15 years.

During that time, the regents raised tuition from about $2,600 a year to as much as $12,228 a year for in-state students, the suit said.

The lawsuit says the increases violate the Arizona Constitution, which states that university instruction shall be furnished “as nearly free as possible.”

Ridenour said the regents welcome the lawsuit, and the court process will allow the regents to present facts and seek clarification on the constitution mandate.

“We can now address who will pay for that mandate,” he said. 

The lawsuit comes after the attorney general warned the regents in July that the state universities may be spending public money improperly because the regents continued to give in-state tuition to immigrant students known as “dreamers,” despite a court ruling that said the practice violated state law.

The Attorney General’s Office sent a letter to the regents after the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled in June that state law bars colleges from granting in-state tuition for students in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. 

About 240 current DACA students at the state’s universities are receiving in-state tuition rates, which are substantially cheaper than non-resident rates. The in-state rate for undergraduate students at Arizona State University is $10,792 this year, compared with $27,372 for non-resident students. 

‘Illegal payment of public monies’ 

After the June court ruling, Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, sent a letter to the attorney general, objecting to the regents’ “continuing open defiance of the law and controlling legal precedent.”

Judicial Watch asked the attorney general to sue the regents or else the group would sue on behalf of a taxpayer, former Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce. Pearce was the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s sweeping immigration-enforcement law that received national attention. 

The attorney general’s lawsuit filed on Friday calls the in-state rates given to DACA students an “illegal payment of public monies.” 

The main thrust of the lawsuit, however, objects to the regents’ overall tuition-setting policy. 

The suit said the formula the regents use is “not consistent” with the “nearly free” mandate of the state Constitution.

Rather than basing tuition on the cost of furnishing instruction, the suit contends the regents also compare Arizona tuition with “peer universities” and the availability of student aid. The regents also “misinterpret” the state Constitution’s “nearly free” mandate to mean “affordable,” the suit said. 

Ridenour’s statement said the recession “upended” the traditional funding model for the state universities. 

The state now funds about 34 percent of the cost of educating an in-state student at the state universities, compared with 75 percent a decade ago. 

The statement said there needs to be a rational statewide discussion “without political pandering” regarding state funding for K-12 and higher education. 

Brnovich responded to the regents Monday by releasing this statement: 

“Arizonans have the right to know the true cost of education at our state universities, and why tuition has been rising at such an alarming rate over the last 15 years. This suit seeks more transparency and accountability to ensure that our universities are operating in the best interest of students and in full compliance with the law.”

Reach the reporter at 602-444-8072 or anne.ryman@arizonarepublic.com.

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