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A Conversation with NAU President Rita Cheng About How Budget Cuts will Affect the Future of Higher

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Arizona’s most recent budget cut nearly a $100 million from the state’s three public universities. Northern Arizona University alone will lose $17.3 million and officials there have responded with a tuition increase for incoming students and the restructuring of several programs. Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius sat down with NAU President Rita Cheng this week to discuss how the university is dealing with the cuts and what the future of higher education in the state might look like.

Ryan Heinsius: What are some of the ways the university is going to contend with the large budget cut?

Dr. Rita Cheng: We need to address IT on the campus and the services of IT and whether we can do that more effectively than we are right now. I’ve asked the vice presidents to look at anything that might even look like or sound like duplication, and look for ways that we can merge those activities that might be taking place in disparate parts of the campus. Our marketing and communications are really good, but I think they could be better. Southern California and the State of Arizona comprise about 90 percent of our students so we want to make sure our communications are effective to high-schoolers and transfer students in both areas. And finally, we’re just looking at ways that we can get by with less and hope that there is some temporary situations here that there will be a new day and a new opportunity for state funding. If that happens in 17 — FY17 or FY18 — we want to be ready for that reinvestment.

RH: You’ve said one of your priorities upon becoming president of NAU was expanding education to first-generation students. How will those budget cuts and tuition increases affect those potential students?

RC: Well, that’s a concern of ours. There are two things that our budget cuts might impact. One is the perception that college is no longer affordable or accessible to a first-generation student. And students need to work with us to find out the opportunities that are available — scholarship dollars, financial aid dollars. Second, the budget cuts — and the reason we kept the academic program cuts less than the non-academic, is that students, particularly first-generation students, need support. And with budget cuts it’s difficult, but we need to maintain those support structures. And finally, the community colleges also were subject to some cuts to their budget, and so many of our first-generation students can access higher education through community colleges and then transferring to NAU. And in fact, we have programs that are called To NAU at almost all of the community colleges in the state.

RH: Gov. Ducey recently hinted that the higher-education cuts could be permanent. Considering that uncertain state support, what does the future of higher education look like in Arizona?

RC: It will mean that we have to continue to be as entrepreneurial as possible, offering programs that are connected to not only life success, but job success. And we will look for private partners to help us carry out our mission. I do believe, however, that the state has a responsibility, and the governor has said — even though there are significantly challenging times — that he values education. And I will always look to conversations with the governor to suggest that the investment in higher-ed in Arizona is a good value.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.
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