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As Nearly Free As Possible Act would require Arizona to pay 50% of college tuition for undergrads

When Shayna Stevens was a student at Northern Arizona University. the cost of college weighed heavily on her mind. NAU offers students a pledge program which locks in new students' tuition rate for four years after enrollment. But even with that guarantee, as a financially independent, first-generation student, Stevens said figuring out how to pay for college was stressful and she questioned whether it was worth it. 

“I already knew the answer and it remains the same today, of course the debt is worth it," she said. "But is it necessary? No, especially not in a state that requires that our higher education system be as nearly free as possible.” 

Stevens is referencing the Arizona Constitution which states that instruction at state universities and all other state educational institutions "shall be as nearly free as possible."

→  Nonprofit says Arizona's high college tuition rates violate the constitution

But over the past 11 years, the cost of attending Arizona's public universities has increased, according to figures by the  Arizona Board of Regents. During the 2010-11 school year, base tuition and mandatory fees for in-state undergraduate students at Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona ranged between $7,600 and $8,000. During the 2020-21 school year, base tuition and mandatory fees at ASU, NAU and the UA ranged between about $11,000 to $12,700. 

These increases coupled with cuts to higher education state funding have left some students priced out, said State Sen. Martín Quezada.

“Out of touch politicians that are down at the state Capitol, they see the Constitution as advisory rather than something they are obligated to uphold," he said. 

Stevens and her group, the Arizona Students' Association, have launched a ballot initiative that aims to make higher education in the state more accessible and affordable.

The statutory measure is titled the As Nearly Free As Possible Act would, if passed, require the Arizona Legislature to pay for at least 50% of tuition and fees for undergraduate resident students. Or it would add a 2 percentage point surcharge to Arizona’s corporate income tax. It would also lock in tuition and fee rates for new students four years after they enroll, and limit tuition and fee increases from ABOR or the universities; mandating that any increase is limited to the prior year’s cost of living increase. 

Arizona State University sophomore Daanish Daudi urges Arizonans to support the proposal. 

“We have so many kids who were unfortunately put behind during the pandemic," he said. "We don’t want to see any kids go out of the system and lose an opportunity to have an education.” 

The association aims to gather about 287,000 signatures by July 2022.

Rocio Hernandez was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2020 to 2022.