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State representative makes controversial comments on college

Attending a research university isn’t for everyone, according to a state representative who roiled educational waters when he suggested Arizona should reconsider how it funds universities “if somebody’s going to end up in a sales position or someone’s going to be a real estate agent.”

“The university redistributes a tremendous amount of tuition money so that almost anybody can go to the university,” Rep. John Kavanagh, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said recently in an interview with Capitol Media Services. He added that the state subsidy for students who go to college but don’t need to takes limited funding “and dilutes it so we can’t concentrate on having some of our science areas and engineering areas being really stellar.”

In an interview with Arizona Sonora News Service on Tuesday, Kavanagh said he believes four-year research universities should become more selective, not only to raise their reputation and standing in the nation, but also so students who graduate will be more competitive with graduates from other research universities.

He added that the state spends too much money on research universities and that there should be more opportunities created for students through non-research four-year college degrees, community college degrees and trade school degrees.

“Everyone should have an educational opportunity so long as there’s a job available for them, and there should be different options for different people because everyone doesn’t need to go to a research university and have the expense and the student debt that follows such a higher-coursed option,” Kavanagh said.

But even though the UA is a research university, Provost Andrew Comrie stressed the value of non-science departments. The UA functions as a full-service, comprehensive university, not just a research institution, Comrie said.

“Universities are not just about training, they’re about education,” Comrie said, “and part of that is understanding all aspects of how our world and cultures work. It’s important to function well as a technical person by understanding the context that you’re working in, and that’s absolutely critical. We’re not just a technical institute. The whole idea is that we provide a full education so we can produce citizens who … can understand as much as possible about how the world works.”

Comrie said researchers help ensure students receive the very best education, along with providing students the opportunity to study with some of the best in their respected fields. The UA wants to improve, he added, but it is also careful not to overlook important issues of accessibility for Arizonans.

Some education leaders said research universities provide a service to the state and aren’t a drain on state dollars.

“I don’t know how you can argue that an education at these universities is a bad thing and that we should lock more people out of the chance to have that,” said Regent Rick Myers, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents. “The amount of money they give from the state per student is among the lowest in the nation. It doesn’t matter if the rest of it is at a research institution or just a four-year institution. The fact that we have research institutions isn’t costing the state.”

In the coming months, legislators will decide if state universities will receive more money for the next fiscal year. The UA sent a request to the board of regents for $34.8 million, which was then sent to the Legislature as part of a total request of a little more than $100 million for all three state universities.

Zachary Brooks, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council, said he believes that in order to build the economy and keep people in Arizona, the state must invest in higher education. He added that he felt Kavanagh made his initial comments in order to provoke a reaction.

“He obviously likes attention, and he knows how to get it,” Brooks said. “I think he’s trying to place the narrative against people who might want to ask for more [for higher education]. It’s a very strategic type of thing.”

Although Morgan Abraham, president of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona, said he agrees with the idea that college isn’t for everyone, he added that it should fall upon students to decide whether to pursue a higher education.

“Obviously, there are some students who don’t want to go to college. There are professions that don’t require them to go to college,” Abraham said, “but that should be up to that individual student and they should have the ability to at least attend an affordable university.”


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