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In a year when Utah's governor is proposing a boost in state funding for higher education, the state's legislators seem focused on getting the biggest possible bang for the public buck.

An approximately $70 million budget request from the state's system of eight public colleges and universities includes $20 million specifically directed at Gov. Gary Herbert's goal of bringing the percentage of Utahns with degrees or certificates to 66 percent by 2020. That funding would be matched by colleges from tuition and other revenue, said Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, questioned Buhler on that point at a Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting Wednesday.

"Are we going to be able to see how the institutions are meeting their share?" Stephenson said. "I'm a little wary of it being funny money."

Buhler assured Stephenson that college presidents will be held accountable.

"Obviously, this is not money that's sitting in the bank. This is going to take some real effort of redirecting resources," Buhler said. "In some cases, some programs may be going away in order to build up other programs."

Stephenson, who has in the past expressed concern about "degrees to nowhere" that don't prepare students for jobs, suggested looking at lowering the costs of science, technology, engineering and math degrees — collectively known as STEM — maybe instead of awarding scholarships. Committee Chair Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, asked higher education leaders to research that idea and present their findings at a later date.

Herbert's 66 percent by 2020 goal also includes certificates from the state's system of eight technical schools, the Utah College of Applied Technology (UCAT). Of the approximately 45 percent of Utahns with a postsecondary education now, 10 to 15 percent of those are certificates in machining, welding, medical assistance and other skilled trades. UCAT leaders plan to triple the number of certificates they award, and requested an additional $9.75 millionfrom the state Wednesday to expand those programs.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, questioned that amount.

"These are certificates that are short-term, less than a year," he said. "It just really seems very expensive for certificates to have them that high."

But Tom Bingham, chair of the UCAT board of trustees, said those jobs are in demand.

"I met with machining companies this week, and they said, 'We can find engineers, what we need is technical people to operate the machining equipment,'" he said.

The Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee will meet twice a week over the next several weeks to hear presentations from each of the state's eight colleges and universities, as well as the eight technical schools, by region, before making a recommendation to the Executive Appropriations Committee.

The governor, meanwhile, has already suggested a funding increase for higher education. In his budget proposal unveiled late last year, Herbert proposed increasing the overall budget for higher education to $812.1 million, a 6.6 percent increase. The higher education system saw its budget cut by about 17 percent in recent years even as enrollment climbed by some 29 percent.

Twitter: @lwhitehurst Higher-ed budget priorities

$20 million for 66 by 2020 goal

$16 million to "mission based performance funding" to increase participation and completion

$7 million compensation

$9.75 million to expand certificate programs at the Utah College of Applied Technology

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