The initiative, which the group hopes to put up for vote in 2016, seeks to block the Arizona Board of Regents from increasing tuition more than the rate of cost of living.
If passed, it also would prevent the state Legislature from cutting the higher education budget without triggering a 2 percent tax surcharge for Arizona businesses.
The price of a degree at Arizona universities more than doubled between 2004 and 2014, The College Board reports.
“We didn’t want to cap tuition and put the universities in a bad place,” said Andy Barr, a political consultant working on the project. So the group wrote in the tax tie-in hoping to hold legislators responsible if they “continue to show total disregard for higher education.”
All three of Arizona’s public universities raised tuition and fees by 3 percent to 4 percent in May after legislators gouged $99 million from their operating budgets. Arizona has cut per-student funding for universities by nearly 50 percent since the recession, more than any other state. Meanwhile, according to The College Board, between 2004 and 2014, the price of a degree at state universities more than doubled.
To get the initiative on the ballot, Save Our Students must now collect at least 150,642 signatures of support.
In a survey the group conducted in March with the help of Public Policy Polling, 69 percent of Arizona voters said they would vote in favor of a tuition cap. Support was roughly even across party lines.
The Arizona Board of Regents, however, hesitated to endorse the proposal.
When setting tuition, the board considers a number of factors beyond state funding, including universities' strategic business plans and goals, as well as statistics about family income, said Katie Paquet, vice president for public affairs and external relations for the regents.
“We certainly appreciate where the initiative backers are coming from,” she said. “But we don’t know what the future holds.”
As a father of a 15-year-old and an 11-year-old, Matt Capalby, campaign committee chair for Save Our Students, said he is “gravely concerned.”
Hailing from a working-class background, Capalby financed his own college degree — with a little help from his parents.
“I’d like my children to have the same opportunity,” said Capalby, a former vice chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party who lives in Flagstaff. “But I’m struggling to see how it’s going to be a possibility.”
Graduating seniors at Arizona universities in 2014 had an average of $22,903 in student loan debt, according to the Arizona Board of Regents.
In the past five years, the share of graduates who took out loans to attend Arizona universities rose from 52 percent to 60 percent, according to regents data. During that same period, the amount of money borrowed increased 15 percent. Last year, graduating seniors owed an average of $22,903.
Save Our Students worries the debt load is hobbling both students and the economy, Capalby said.
High monthly student-loan payments, for example, are preventing an increasing number of young people from saving money for a down payment on a home or from qualifying for a mortgage, according to an analysis by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. A recent study from Pennsylvania State University professor Brent W. Ambrose also found people with student loans are less likely to start businesses of their own.
“It’s not right,” Capalby said. “We need to find a way to keep college affordable.”
Garrick Taylor, spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, though, argues the proposal could have the opposite effect.
The tax trigger would “harm job creators," he said, which would create a drag on the economy.
“You have to have a thriving economy in order to meet the education funding goals that we seek,” he said.
Daniel Scarpinato, Governor Doug Ducey's spokesman, said the governor "has been clear that he does not support raising taxes."
"However, when it comes to higher education," he said, Ducey "looks forward to working closely with the regents and wants to ensure our three great universities stay great."