- The Arizona Supreme Court agreed this week to review a dismissed lawsuit that takes aim at rising tuition rates at the state's public universities.
- The Arizona attorney general alleges in the lawsuit that tuition increases at the state's public universities violate the state constitution's mandate to keep higher education "as nearly free as possible."
- The legal battle comes as universities nationwide are struggling to curb tuition increases after years of wavering state support.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in a statement Tuesday that the court's decision to review the case could bring relief to families struggling to afford the cost of a postsecondary education at the states' public universities.
"The Supreme Court today offered a glimmer of hope — an open door for a necessary debate regarding the authority of the Attorney General to defend the state constitution and affordability of higher education at our public universities," he said.
Brnovich filed the lawsuit against the state's board of regents in 2017, alleging that its decision to make large increases to tuition over the course of 15 years violates the state's constitution.
The Arizona Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit last year, ruling that the state's attorney general did not have the authority to sue the board of regents over tuition prices. In a statement Wednesday, board chair Larry Penley agreed, arguing that Brnovich is seeking "authority to sue any agency of government with whom he disagrees."
But the state's highest court has the power to overturn the appeals court decision.
If it succeeds, it could allow the attorney general to act as a watchdog over tuition rates, said Peter Lake, director of Stetson University's Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy, in an interview with Education Dive.
"It could have some pretty remarkable implications for who sets tuition and would put the attorney general's office in an important role of negotiating future tuition increases," he added.
The lawsuit points out that tuition and fees for in-state students at the University of Arizona's main campus surged by 370% between the 2002-03 and 2017-18 academic years to $12,228, even though the state's median income rose just 27% over roughly the same period.
In a report last year, the National College Attainment Network identified Arizona as one of eight states that had no four-year public colleges that it deemed affordable for low-income students between 2012-13 and 2016-17.
The legal battle in Arizona highlights a nationwide struggle to reign in the cost of tuition at public universities and to increase state support for higher education, which has been slow to recover after the Great Recession.
Several universities have agreed to freeze their tuition rates in exchange for more state funding. Virginia's public colleges kept their sticker prices level this year for the first time in almost two decades in order to receive $53 million from the state legislature.
Other colleges have initiated freezes without a large influx of state funding. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which has struggled with falling enrollment, held the line on its tuition prices this academic year even though it faced a $62.7 million budget deficit.