Is College Really Worth It?

(Photo by John Walker/Creative Commons)

We’ve been hit in the past week by two big news stories pertaining to the AZ Board of Regents and our university system. To refresh your memories…

First, Arizona Appeals Court Rejects AG’s Tuition Lawsuit Against Regents
Next, Arizona Regents Expand Tuition Rate Discount Paid By DACA Students

Is it really a coincidence that two days after the court of appeals rejects the AG’s lawsuit over the egregious tuition increases imposed by the AZ Board of Regents, (on basically a technicality – and while I admit I’m not a lawyer nor stayed at a Holiday Inn Express – it appears that, once again, Stare Decisis overrules the plain language of the law but that’s another op-ed for another day), that ABOR then turns around and expands discounts to DACA students?

But what has been lost in the midst of these arguments is discussion of the quality of the education provided for the cost of the education. The report from the American Council of Trustee and Alumni (ACTA) What Will They Learn? 2018-19 – A Survey of Core Requirements at our Nation’s Colleges and Universities shines a spotlight on both quality and cost. ACTA evaluated over 1,100 public and private universities in all 50 states. It paints a very dim picture of America’s institutes of higher education including Arizona’s university system academically – and the cost/benefit analytically.

The ACTA bases their ratings on the inclusion of seven core content areas which should be essential elements of EVERY college or university’s undergraduate degree requirements. The core areas are Composition, Literature, Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History (which should be “AND”), Economics, Mathematics and Natural Science.  There is, or should be, no argument that these liberal arts studies are vital components of any post secondary education – K-12 also for that matter.

The ACTA study “…evaluates every four-year public university with a stated liberal arts mission…” If anything is missing, in my opinion, it would only be coursework in Logic, Rhetoric and Reasoning. I could live with that being an alternative to a foreign language since in this day and age it seems Logic, Rhetoric and Reasoning is a foreign language to many.

Arizona State University received a “C” as its programs only require Composition, Math, and Science while ignoring in degree requirements study in the areas of Literature, Language, U.S. HISTORY/GOVERNMENT and Economics. And honestly, how effective will a composition course be without a companion study of literature? I suppose studying and understanding our history or government and economics is only important if we believe college graduates should be part of protecting and perpetuating our country, economy and our very way of life and liberty for future generations.

From the ACTA study, Northern Arizona University likewise received a “C” with the same requirements and deficiencies in the core content as ASU.

Saving the best for last – not – is the University of Arizona receiving a “D” with Composition and Science as the only required core courses to earn a degree. How legitimate is a degree in science without a thorough understanding of math? I suppose an argument can be made that with the pseudo science being taught these days it really doesn’t matter all that much.

Aside from the “argument” of what should be included as core content for the academic requirements of a college degree let’s look at the AG’s contention that the tuition at Arizona’s universities is too high. An allegation substantiated by what this study reveals about the tuition that AZ university students have to pay (more likely are compelled to finance) compared to our neighboring states.

The average tuition of AZ’s universities is $11,200 (averages do not include room and board).

The ONLY university system more costly than Arizona’s is the University of California (UC) system (headed up by former AZ governor Janet Napolitano) which accounts for only 14 of the 36 California public universities in the study. As the chart shows, excluding the UC system, AZ has the highest tuition and is second to last in academic expectations.

Average TuitionLetter Grade Distribution
State (Number of Schools)In-StateOut StateABCDF
ARIZONA (3)$11,200$30,10021
California State University (22)$7,200$19,9001156
University of California (14)$14,000$41,1002183
Colorado  (11)$9,400$27,500722
w/o Boulder, Ft. Collins$8,800$21,400
Nevada (3)$6,800$20,1003
New Mexico (5)$6,400$15,500122
Utah (6)$6,600$19,30015
Averages calculated and grades from ACTA What Will They Learn 2018

Isn’t it interesting the University of California system with the highest average tuition has the worst grades and lowest expectations for academic rigor? Apparently the more a university system gouges for tuition the worse the core education it provides to its students. Shouldn’t the goal be lower tuition and higher academic content??

So while AZ has the most expensive tuition (only behind UC, not the whole CA system) according to the Cost of Living Index by State 2019 of those states in the table above only New Mexico has a lower cost of living than AZ. So why are our students incurring so much more, most likely, debt for a college education than those in our neighboring state with higher, in some cases significantly higher, costs of living?

Arizona universities’ average out-of-state tuition once again is dwarfed only by University of California. Only time will tell the impact of the ABOR decision on both in and out-of-state tuition rates. And while I may sympathize with the plight of the DACA students whose fate in many cases was outside their control, it seems inherently unfair to me that citizen students from out-of-state should absorb the cost.

According to promotional statements ASU offers more than 350 fully accredited undergraduate degrees and majors. NAU touts over 180 undergraduate and graduate degrees/programs. U of A extols over 300 undergraduate degrees and graduate programs. While not part of the ACTA report it doesn’t take much research to determine that these numbers FAR exceed the number of programs/degrees/majors of other public and private “elite” colleges and universities across the nation.

This sounds more like hiring everybody and their brother to create “majors” and “teach” their own personal agendas and interests rather than impart to students the important content of a classic liberal arts education prior to majoring in a chosen field or offering marketable degrees.


This reminds me of when I attended Rutgers, much to my business advisor’s chagrin I filled numerous elective slots with “Women’s Studies” classes outside my major. When Professor “G” balked at signing off on my schedule (yes, I went to college back in the day when advisors in the major signed off on the course schedule) I explained as a full time student with the demands of a job in corporate America those courses worked well. Whether the course was Women’s role in history or business or society or whatever, all I needed to regurgitate was the professors’ belief – agenda – that “women rule” and “men drool” to get an “A.” But I digress.

According to ACTA Arizona’s universities 4 year graduation rate (based on first-time, full-time freshman in 2011) was less than 50%. What of those who don’t finish? And what of those people who made it through, earned a degree, some degree, any degree out of the hundreds and hundreds of choices but are under-employed? Both are still on the hook for the loans or at least the taxpayers are but the universities – not so much. They are the big winners in the student loan game.

And what impact does the inordinate number of majors and the associated salaries of university employees it takes to support all those programs have on the tuition that not only the students pay but the taxpayers underwrite (not to mention the cost of infrastructure)?

The AZ Republic publishes a database of state/county/city employee salaries. One must go through dozens of pages before finding one that is not almost exclusively populated by the salaries of university employees. The better part of the first two dozen pages includes university salaries in excess of a quarter MILLION dollars – plus benefits, of course – in AZ where the median household income is $57,000 +/-.

I learned long ago that when the “education system” (endlessly) refers to creating “lifelong learners” it does not mean creating a never ending thirst and quest for truth and knowledge in a person. Rather it means so specializing a field of study or certification that when the demand wanes it necessitates a person to, best case, incur the cost of endless professional development to broaden their skill set or worst case begin again with a new degree or certification creating a perpetual customer base for education “services.” Being self-taught or autodidactic, while more than good enough for our Founding Fathers is ridiculed in this day and age. After all being well-educated is not nearly as important as being highly schooled. But then how or what can a person possibly have learned if not certified by the government one way or another?  But again, I digress.

The AZ Constitution Article 11 Section 6 requires of our universities that “… the instruction furnished shall be nearly as free as possible.” Quite frankly the current cost of tuition and the university infrastructure not only makes a joke of this constitutional requirement but also an outrageous burden on students and taxpayers alike. Was imposing a 300% tuition increase – across all our state universities – the only way to cause ASU to lose its rating among the top “party schools” or has the “free” money from student loans just become too addictive for ABOR and university presidents to resist and without Economics is the decades long impact of those loans too hard for those being indebted to understand?

It appears that a true – external – cost/benefit analysis of our university system is LONG overdue – financially and academically. And maybe, just maybe, while we are looking at the AZ Constitution we should take a long hard look at Article 2, Section 12 and the detrimental impact so much of the studies offered or not offered (hint: U.S. History/Government, Economics) within our universities have upon our understanding of “Liberty of Conscience” and “Truth.”

About Diane Douglas, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction 2015-2018 15 Articles
Diane Douglas is an American politician and educator expert, who served as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2015-2019. She was elected on November 4, 2014. Douglas succeeded then-incumbent John Huppenthal, whom she defeated for the party's nomination in the Republican primary on August 26, 2014.