State Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton, has crafted a bill that, if all goes as planned, would be the first step to providing the biggest boost to local economic development since copper was discovered.

Nutt’s bill, HB 2790, would amend state statute to allow the state’s community colleges to offer baccalaureate (four-year) degrees.

There are plenty of hurdles to Nutt’s bill — getting through the Legislature for one, which is never a guarantee, even for the Majority Whip — but perhaps there is no bigger hurdle than the expected opposition from the state’s private four-year colleges. They, of course, don’t want additional competition, especially low-cost options for the state’s high school graduates.

The bill alone won’t elevate Eastern Arizona College alone to the ranks of the state’s colleges and universities — all the other community colleges in the state would have the same opportunity to offer four-year degrees if their governing boards so choose. So there would still be significant competition from the likes of Cochise, Mohave and Yavapai colleges.

But Eastern is well positioned to make the jump to bigger and better things.

Education is certainly a driving concern. After all, Article 11, Section 6 of the state’s Constitution states, “The university and all other state educational institutions shall be open to students of both sexes, and the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible.”

The governor and Legislature have been pressured to find ways to lower the cost of a college education, and allowing community colleges to instruct toward a four-year degree will certainly help in that regard.

Plus this should help the rural areas of the state keep many of their best and brightest students, who could matriculate at home rather than leaving for university.

But the bigger issue is that such a move will help the economies of the communities with community colleges. Graham County will be able to keep that tuition, housing and food money here instead of it going to Flagstaff, Tucson or Tempe.

Most importantly, if Nutt’s bill is signed into law and proves successful for Eastern, that could pave the way to the college becoming the state’s fourth university.

NAU produces an estimated economic impact of $2.6 billion annually for Flagstaff, ASU an estimated $3.6 billion to Tempe and, while a 2019 study didn’t break out the impact to Tucson, the University of Arizona has an $11.5 billion estimated impact to the state.

Would it be unreasonable to assume that, if Eastern became a university, it could generate an estimated $1 billion in economic impact to Graham County? We think that’s a bit on the conservative side, but we’d rather plan small and hope for more.

Arizona can certainly add a fourth university — Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the country and the state is the second-fastest in growth behind Nevada — so it’s not a matter of should there be another state university, but when.

Which creates a bigger question — where should a fourth university be located? Mohave and Yuma counties could certainly make a case — they might draw well from Southern California — as could Prescott, which already has two private colleges.

If Graham wants to be the home of Eastern Arizona University, residents need to start the process now. That means calling legislators on both sides of the aisle in support of Nutt’s bill as well as promoting the idea of EAC becoming EAU.

Creating a fourth university will be an uphill battle in the short term, but the long-term benefits are too great to ignore.

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