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Developing a Workforce for the New Economy; Spurring Economic Development in Arizona

As the holiday season approaches, we look forward to spending time with family and friends.

The Northern Arizona University community also looks forward to starting a new calendar year, filled with hopes, dreams and aspirations. A brand-new semester provides an opportunity to meet new people and reunite with others on our campuses.

Along with our partners from the other state universities, we also look forward to hearing how higher education funding will fare with the governor and legislature in the 2020-2021 budget.

With a goal of increasing access and affordability, the Arizona Board of Regents established targeted investment areas in collaboration with each university to develop a workforce for the new economy and spur economic development in Arizona. NAU’s portion would include $32 million over last year’s state appropriations.

Northern Arizona University’s targeted investment areas are as follow:

A $22 million earmark is expected to pay for expanded health care programs, including behavioral health training, a critical need in Arizona communities. The funds would support continuing partnerships with K-12 systems, community colleges and NAU to expedite degree programs. They will pay for new programs in cybersecurity, a field in which there is an immediate and growing need.

Another $10 million would support NAU’s mission as a predominately Arizona resident student serving institution and aid in development and education initiatives at the main mountain campus.

Last year, the legislature set aside money for the Teachers Academy, which currently has 700 students enrolled to become teachers with the assurance they’ll graduate close to or debt free.

Continuing funding ensures we are able to run a robust Teacher’s Academy to educate highly-qualified teachers and tackle the state’s severe teacher shortage. Funding will impact whether students can finish their degrees on time or take longer if burdened by taking on further debt. For employers not just in Northern Arizona but around the state, funding will ensure having an educated workforce and the right talent to move Arizona’s economy forward.

U.S. higher education institutions lost $9 billion in state funding over the last 10 years, or an average of $1,200 per student, according to the Hechinger Report. Arizona is among eight states in the country that lost more than 30 percent of its state funding over the last 10 years. The others are Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. (Arizona higher education funding was cut 56 percent between 2008-2018.)

At NAU, state appropriations accounted for more than 22% of revenue sources in 2014. It now accounts for 18% of its total budget. All colleges and universities that have experienced drastic funding cuts have resorted to creative measures. NAU is no exception. During this time, we have used grants and contracts, sponsored research funding, used auxiliary funding, raised tuition and increased enrollment.

Today, we educate 3,000 more students a year than five years ago – or 11% more – with $700 less per student. And we have lost $5,000 per student funding since 2008.

It is important for NAU to distinguish itself in an increasingly competitive higher education landscape. Our community engagement, our sustainability efforts, our student, faculty, staff and student diversity are all strong identifiers for NAU. But all these require funding.

NAU degrees have a significant impact on the state’s workforce.

Sixty-eight percent of individuals who earned a degree from NAU since the year 2000 live and work in Arizona.

Eighty-four percent of last year’s graduates are employed within the state.

Fifty percent of households in Coconino County have at least one NAU graduate.

NAU also generates an economic impact of nearly $2.6 billion in the State of Arizona. Consider these figures from 2017:

NAU employed 4,677 people earning nearly $305 million.

NAU employees spent nearly $219 million in goods and services in the Flagstaff area.

NAU students spent nearly $670 million in goods and services in the Flagstaff area.

Goods and services used for NAU’s operations were an estimated $143.4 million.

Construction employed 655 people and was estimated to have a $92.6 million economic output.

Visitor spending, excluding lodging, was about $34 million.

The estimated fiscal impact in primary and secondary taxes on the state was $66.3 million.

I am grateful to the state for considering our 2020-2021 budget request. We hope some of our losses from the last 10 years will start to be restored. State funding helps NAU support student outreach, quality instruction and student services while increasing access to higher education for our entire population of students, contributing to Arizona’s education attainment goals.

Investing in NAU is important for the long-term education of our citizens, to grow our future workforce and support a strong and thriving economy. I hope you will join me in advocating for higher education funding so that we can continue to move the state forward, diversifying our economy, and continue to be an engine for innovation, adaptation and to support future, thriving generations of Arizonans. QCBN


By Rita Hartung Cheng


Rita Hartung Cheng is the 16th president of Northern Arizona University.


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