Arizona Board of Regents Fabricated Number for Immigrant Proposal

A proposed tuition rate for undocumented immigrants that the Arizona Board of Regents will vote on next week was created by guesswork, New Times has learned.

At a public meeting last month, the board proposed the new tuition rate of 150 percent of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants who qualify under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — a figure that supposedly includes no state subsidies.

Arizona university officials including board chairman Mark Killian said at the time that they would like to give DACA-qualified youth the opportunity to avoid the high expense of out-of-state tuition, which is the rate undocumented immigrants had been paying. However, a law approved by voters in 2006 prohibits the state from giving assistance, including in-state tuition, to undocumented residents. Complicating matters, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich sued the Maricopa County Community College District when it began charging DACA-qualified students in-state tuition.

Earlier this month, though, the judge in the community-college case ruled that DACA-qualified immigrants could begin receiving in-state tuition immediately, despite the 2006 law. The day after the ruling, the board voted unanimously to grant in-state tuition to those immigrants, known as DREAMers.

The vote didn't render the 150 percent proposal completely moot. The board is still slated to vote on the proposal at its June 4-5 meeting in Tucson. Besides being a backup plan in case Brnovich successfully overturns the ruling in the community-college case, to which the Board of Regents was not a party, the proposal would grant the 150 percent rate to certain qualified students, including kids who grew up in Arizona but moved away for a few years before returning to the state for college.

We find the question of how the ABOR came up with the 150 percent proposal interesting enough to share with you, despite the judge's ruling, because the answer exposes the state agency and Killian as less-than-honest.

"The board arrived at the 150 percent proposal by calculating how much it cost the universities to educate each student," states an April 29 New Times article on the subject by Elizabeth Stuart, paraphrasing Killian. "While the university makes profit off of non-resident tuition, this new proposal would allow DACA recipients to simply cover their own costs without a taxpayer subsidy."

For an article the week before, Killian told Stuart, "We were very careful . . . The people of Arizona voted not to subsidize these students and we're not about to violate that."

In fact, the board wasn't "very careful" and didn't actually calculate the per-student cost of education to the university system.

New Times submitted a records request under Arizona state law on April 29 for the paperwork that shows the analysis and calculation of the annual cost of educating each public university student.

About three weeks later, the ABOR told us that no such records exist — not at ABOR, anyway.

Nancy Tribbensee, senior vice president for ABOR's Academic, Legal & External Affairs, confirms that the agency didn't do the calculation.

The board did produce for New Times a newly created chart that states a dollar amount supposed to represent the annual per-student cost of education. New Times hadn't requested the chart, which in any case didn't give detail or a breakdown on how the per-student figure was derived. If you're wondering, the ABOR states that it will cost the university system $15,114 (minus a $320 mandatory fee) per year to educate each student for its fiscal year 2016, compared to the $10,439 per student it cost in 2004.

Tribbensee tells New Times that the per-student cost used by the board to make the 150 percent proposal was not calculated by anyone, but rather by "the system." When the agency told the press that "we" calculated the true per-capita cost of educating students, she says, the ABOR meant "we" not as in ABOR, but the entire university system. The number was presented to the board in an executive session, Tribbensee says — but the board won't reveal who presented it.

Clearly, the number was derived somehow, because it exists and was presented to the board. But it seems the agency has little idea how the number was derived, which means, therefore, the board doesn't really know whether the number is accurate.

None of these Twilight Zone-like answers to our records request was a surprise to us.

We put in the request because we and every Arizona public university student, parent of a student, and legislator would love to see a breakdown on the true expenses of educating each public university student. Like any other expense sheet, in theory it might tally the salaries of professors and employees, the cost of providing electricity minus all those solar panels, the cost of lobbying and marketing, etc.

We had zero expectations that the agency had actually calculated those costs, so in that sense the ABOR didn't disappoint.

We e-mailed and left a message for Killian, but — in another non-surprise — he's unavailable for comment on this subject. Two other regents we e-mailed didn't call us back to explain the situation to us, either.

Here's what we suspect happened:

The Board of Regents needed a tuition rate that would not only help the DREAMers, but also would satisfy the desire of the Arizona Legislature and the public to grant no subsidies to undocumented immigrants. So it fabricated one.

And "150 percent" is a round number that sounds good. 

It may even be in the ballpark — who knows?

Got a tip? Email Ray Stern

Follow Ray Stern on Twitter: @RayStern

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter: @ValleyFeverPHX
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.