Ron Shoopman recently stepped down from his role as president and CEO of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council for the past 14 years. He also serves on the Arizona Board of Regents as the treasurer and immediate past chair.
The following is an edited conversation with Shoopman. Read more online at Insidetucsonbusiness.com.
How has the landscape of higher education in Arizona changed over time?
Overall, I think the trend has been positive in a couple of ways. Our freshman retention rate is over 80 percent. Our graduation rate for those that started as freshman with us is now in the low 60s and we believe we’ll get closer to 70 pretty soon. Compare that to 25 years ago, when graduation rates in our universities were down in the 20 percent range. So we are doing far better year over year at producing more students for less money and a higher quality. Now, do we have the funding we need to give access to more Arizona kids? No we don’t. We do a lot of scholarship work to make sure that no matter where you come from in Arizona as a student, if you get a B or better average, and you’ve taken the classes that you’re supposed to take to be prepared to go into college, you’re automatically admitted. And if you’re from a very poor family, you pay nothing to go to school. It’s close to 30 percent of our students pay nothing.
What are your most memorable accomplishments and challenges during your time as a Regent and as president of SALC?
I’m really proud of how the three universities are now working together. Our three universities are a huge powerhouse of impact and I think we’re doing that better than we ever have before. The biggest challenge for the future is the fact that Arizona kids are not going to school at a high enough rate. Too few are choosing to go to college, too few are finishing college. Right now if you look at ninth graders in Arizona, only 17 percent of those ninth graders are going to get a four-year degree if nothing improves. That’s half of what we need. So what does that mean? All the really good high-paying jobs are going to people moving to Arizona and our kids are left with just the entry-level jobs. We have got to change young peoples’ attitudes about the value of education.
So what can the universities do to encourage more people to go to college?
We’re working with access (AHCCCS) and they’re going to send some of our information about that to young families. So if you have a young child and you’re a poverty-level person or you’re on access for whatever reason, you get this thing that says your child can go to the universities regardless of how much money you have. Take the classes, get a B or better, and you can go to an Arizona university and it will change your life.
What was the economic impact study that you spearheaded during your time at the Board of Regents?
We got two very reputable folks to do this work, they’ve done similar studies in the past and the people in the legislature like them. We told them we wanted a conservative, not an exaggeration, of the impact of the universities. We said look at all three universities, and give us a conservative number. They could have easily justified a higher number, but $11.1 billion impact on our economy is the same as all the military bases added up together in the state. So the military bases and the universities have the same economic impact on the state. What’s important about that is to understand that the value of having a university in the middle of your community is huge.
The state government invested $15 million in Pima Community College’s aviation technician program this year. Is it more effective to do targeted investments in specific programs rather than to disperse funding throughout the entire educational system?
I think the answer is both. If you get money for a program like that, but you don’t have any money to fix the broken air conditioners in the classroom at another campus, you might have one great program but you still have a problem. We can’t afford to not invest in the overall cost of education, the infrastructure of education. We don’t have enough counselors in our grade schools, in fact there’s so few there’s nobody for a young person to go and talk to about what they could do when they grow up. So it is important that they do some of those targeted investments, particularly with one-time money when they have it. We need an investment in year-over-year money to make sure that our universities can sustain. We are producing at such a higher level than we’re being invested in; it is a night-and-day comparison. With a little bit more, we could do more to get more Arizona kids in school.
When Arizona was looking at an extra $180 million at its disposal due to changes in federal tax laws, many Democrats wanted to see that money go toward education. Do you think that would have been the best choice?
I think one-time money should be spent on one-time things. Regardless of what you think is the right thing to do, that money was a lost opportunity in my view. If you had every state agency funded at a level where you’re meeting the needs of the people of the state, then I’d say for a windfall like that one, do a one-time one-year rebate. But to basically zero it out means that nobody benefitted and all of us got a little bit less of a tax bill, and that’s a good thing I suppose, but not when you don’t have enough money for some critical programs for kids.
How has your work and connections at the Southern Arizona Leadership Council informed your role as a Regent?
It was really the foundation for the work that I did there, because I spent 10 years before I became a Regent working on policy issues: education, workforce, transportation, all the different work that we do here. But then that gave me the understanding of being able to deal with issues with a little more background in the state.
Where was SALC when you first stepped into your leadership role 14 years ago and how has the organization changed since then?
The organization was only seven years old when I became its president and CEO. We had about 50 members and we set in place some guiding principles that this group of CEOs is not getting together to make their businesses better, they’re getting together to make the community better. We’re now at about 145 members and our budget has more than tripled and our impact has really grown commensurate to that. So it’s been very rewarding for me, I spent most of that recession building this, so it was a challenge but it’s been great to see it get to this point.