Setting the Path for Future Economic Success-Opinion-Editorial

Posted on: May 18, 2009

Historians tell us the establishment of Arizona’s first university in 1885 in Tucson was met with a bombardment of ripe eggs and rotten vegetables.

The local citizenry had sent a representative to negotiate with the state’s 13th Territorial Legislature in hopes of gaining one of two entities—the state capitol or a mental health institution. They saw either as helping to set the path for future economic success.

Instead, they received what they termed a measly $25,000 appropriation to build the University of Arizona. Angered by what they viewed as a great defeat, the trash hurling commenced.

Not long after this odious outcome, our state’s forefathers went on to establish two more universities—Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University—at a time when a college education was neither common, nor a priority. Less than 100 students attended in those early days, and the areas of study were few.

Today, the mission of Arizona’s three public universities is more diverse, comprehensive and connected to the needs of our state. They educate tens of thousands annually to give our state’s industries a skilled workforce. They inform decision makers through public policy studies. They strengthen communities by leading and moderating citizen dialogue and debate. And, their research spawns innovations, cultivates entrepreneurs, and generates business opportunities.

All three are themselves major economic engines—employing more than 30,000 Arizonans and attracting industry that impacts Arizona’s economy by billions of dollars every year.

Beyond economics, our universities’ research helps to save and sustain life. From the study of tree rings that could impact global warming, to the creation of the world’s first FDA-approved temporary artificial heart at the University of Arizona; to the study of forest health to prevent catastrophic wildfires, and the faster diagnosis of infectious diseases and the identification of potential biothreat agents at Northern Arizona University; to the work of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University to find cancer treatments and cures; as well as ASU’s study of solar energy conversion into a sustainable energy resource—our universities are changing Arizona’s destiny through their discoveries.

And our universities make the quality of our lives better. Studies support that an educated citizenry results in decreased reliance on government support, reduced crime rates, increased charitable giving, and an improved ability to adapt and use technology. Additionally, all workers, regardless of their education level, experience an increase in their salaries when a larger proportion of the workforce has a college degree.

However, despite the positive impacts of the universities, we’re not keeping up with the pace of future workforce needs. As a country, we no longer lead the world in educational attainment; and among all states, Arizona is 43rd in the number of high school seniors who go on to earn a college degree.

Before our current economic crisis hit, the U.S. Labor Department projected that in 2013 there would be three million more jobs in our country that would require a bachelor’s degree. Economists still expect certain industry segments, especially health care, to continue to grow and require a bachelor’s degree. Also predicted, in 2020, and in Arizona alone, 167,000 jobs requiring a college degree will become vacant due to retirements. We aren’t on track as a state or a nation to fill these future jobs.

Our universities stand ready to help change this trajectory. That will require new ways to deliver educational programs at a lower cost, and through further state investment. Our policymakers, regents and universities have agreed to work toward solutions, and have begun the dialogue. We are prepared to work collaboratively to advance this effort.

The future of higher education in Arizona is in a precarious place, and tough decisions will have to be made. As a percentage of the general fund, state support of our universities has significantly diminished over the past three decades, while enrollment has skyrocketed. Recent additional cuts to university budgets have exacerbated the problem. A greater portion of the cost is falling to the students and their parents, at a time when it’s economically difficult for many. This trend will make it difficult to move Arizona from the bottom quartile in the number of students completing college.

Our foundations know that Arizona’s success relies on a well-educated citizenry. Our targeted investments seek to provide educational and research opportunities to advance our state in the global marketplace in which we now compete.

Our strategic grant making recognizes that Arizona will be a better place to live, work, and raise families if it has the infrastructure to make it a leader in the high-technology industries driving the knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century. Achieving such leadership is impossible without full investment in our state’s education pipeline, such as STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), from K-12 through graduate education.

Outstanding research universities are essential to position Arizona competitively in a knowledge-driven economy—new medical discoveries, alternative energy sources, and technology breakthroughs. And it requires more than research stature; it means our universities must be prepared to convert discoveries into economic activity.

Though our state and national economies are currently in fiscal disarray, and it may be difficult to see our way clear, we must keep focused on the future—one that is inextricably connected to the success of our universities.

Education changes lives, and we cannot lose sight of the importance of an educated society; nor the innovation and economic prosperity that our universities provide.

Mr. Jewett is a former president of the Arizona Board of Regents and the incoming president and CEO of the Flinn Foundation. Mr. Murphy is the longtime president of the Flinn Foundation, who will retire June 2009. Mr. Roig is chairman of the Helios Education Foundation.

Category: Foundation Feature

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