Last school year, the University of Arizona received nearly $900 more in state funding per student than Arizona State University and about $760 more per student than Northern Arizona University.
This funding gap, which has existed for many years, hasn't escaped the attention of some state legislators. They are pushing to equalize funding and are requiring the universities to submit a budget proposal that addresses the issue.
The Arizona Board of Regents, the university system's governing body, is asking the state Legislature to phase in additional funding over five years, beginning in fiscal 2013, to help ASU and NAU catch up with UA.
If the Legislature agrees, the change could eventually bring nearly $60 million more annually to ASU and $16.5 million more to NAU. UA wouldn't lose or gain any funding under the proposal. UA President Eugene Sander said UA supports the proposal and the recommendation is "as fair as it possibly could be."
The idea behind equalizing funding is that every Arizona student "really should get the same amount of (state) funding at each of the three universities," said NAU President John Haeger.
In fiscal 2011, UA got $6,598 per full-time student in state funding, ASU got $5,702 and NAU got $5,840, according to a recent report prepared for the Legislature by the regents.
Students at UA aren't "weighted" more for state funding than those at ASU and NAU. Rather, over the years, as the Legislature has approved annual funding for each university, gaps have developed among them, partly because their enrollment growth varies.
Before the recent recession, during which university budgets were cut, the Legislature often took each school's enrollment into account when approving funding. However, each university also sought additional money for special programs, helping create uneven per-student funding. Also, ASU's and NAU's enrollments have risen at a faster rate than UA's over the past decade, and their funding has not kept pace.
UA hasn't grown as fast as the other two schools partly because its main campus in Tucson is outside the Phoenix area. The regents also have positioned ASU and NAU to pick up the bulk of the new undergraduate students.
The gaps in funding exclude the extra money UA gets for some special programs not offered by other schools, such as its medical school and agricultural extension services. If those were included, the gap would be wider, with UA's state-funding share at $9,585 per student. But university officials say including the medical school and agriculture in the comparison would be unfair.
At the Legislature, interest in the funding gap arose several years ago.
In 2008, the House appointed a committee to analyze state-funding differences. The committee was critical of the regents in its report, calling the inequities a "long-standing issue" and saying "there has been little, if any, effort by the Arizona Board of Regents to address the issue." The committee recommended that the Legislature develop a plan to spread the funding more evenly. In 2011, the Legislature passed a bill requiring the universities to submit a budget request for fiscal 2013 that deals with the inequities.
To close the gap, the regents are requesting $15.3 million in unearmarked money in fiscal 2013, with the rest phased in over four years. The state Legislature and governor will have final say over the funding.
Gov. Jan Brewer's budget recommendation, released on Jan. 13, takes note of the funding inequities. But instead of a lump sum, it proposes $15.3 million for just next year to improve college classes through technology at ASU and NAU. The governor also believes a newly proposed funding formula, which will give the universities additional money for increasing the number of graduates, will favor fast-growing schools like ASU and NAU. She believes that may decrease the funding disparities even further over time.
Regents President Tom Anderes released a statement in response to the governor's budget proposal, saying that the regents appreciate the governor's reinvestment in higher education but that her proposal to address inequities "is not reflective of the Board's work with the (university) system and university presidents to create an equitable and fiscally reasonable plan to remedy this issue."
In an interview with The Arizona Republic, Anderes said most states don't provide uniform funding to their state universities. He is unaware of any efforts in other states to close funding gaps. The regents' proposal strikes a balance, he said. It keeps the UA's current funding while providing more money to ASU and NAU to help them deal with explosive student growth.
"It would allow NAU and ASU to provide some additional resources in various areas," he said. "It could be faculty, student advising. It could provide some additional resources in support of the instructional programs."