Another banner year for Utah colleges

Higher ed » Despite enrollment jump, Utah campuses facing cuts.
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Bryan Poulsen is a member of the largest freshman class in Dixie State College's history and a contributor to Utah's historic enrollment boom. This fall, the state's nine public credit-granting colleges and universities saw their enrollments rise by 8.3 percent for the biggest jump ever.

Poulsen has traveled across the Atlantic for a church mission, but for college this fall he decided to go a short distance down Highway 9 from his hometown in Hurricane. Interested in visual technology, he researched programs all over the state. The best for him was at Dixie State College.

"If you find a program that good that's close enough to drive to, you can't beat that," said Poulsen, a 2006 high school graduate who now lives in St. George, but commutes the 18 miles to Hurricane for work.

Utah has enrolled 12,632 more college students than last year, also a banner year for enrollment gains. But the boom is coming in the face of historic cuts in state funding, leading to a "critical tipping point" for higher education, officials say.

Dixie and Snow College in Ephraim experienced the biggest percentage increases, around 25 percent in terms of full-time attendance, while Salt Lake Community College experienced the biggest gain in absolute numbers. For the first time the University of Utah no longer has the state's largest student body. With nearly 34,000 students, SLCC now holds that distinction; the U. remains the biggest campus by far in terms of credit hours taught.

Many of the new faces at SLCC belong to "non-traditional" students like Lori Sisneros, a recently laid-off mother of two who returned to school to acquire the skills to work as a physical therapy assistant.

The economic downturn is the stock explanation for recent growth in Utah enrollments, but a closer look at the numbers suggest other factors are also at play.

Dixie's historic enrollment growth is driven by traditional-age freshmen and associate-degree graduates sticking around to pursue a four-year degree.

"Dixie is very student centered in its support systems. We are tying everything together in a straightforward program and we're seeing the fruits of our labor," said Frank Lojko, Dixie's vice president for student services.

On the third week of every semester, the Utah System of Higher Education counts students at all its institutions, compiling "head counts" that are critical for budget and planning purposes. Since the recession hit, the state has repeatedly logged across-the-board enrollment gains, coinciding with round after round of budget cuts. So the state's nine-campus system must educate a lot more students with a lot less money.

"Last year our universities and colleges effectively managed budget cuts amidst record enrollment increases, thanks to one-time federal stimulus money. Our college presidents report to me that unless something changes, next school year will be far different," said Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg.

In anticipation of big student surges, Utah Valley University and SLCC, the state's two high-growth colleges, went on hiring sprees for part-time adjunct faculty last summer. Officials now worry whether these open-access schools can sustain their growth and continue providing quality education without new money.

"The story is getting worse, not better," said UVU President Matthew Holland, who projects his school's enrollment will climb to 39,000 over the next decade. "We would have to put it on the backs of students at some level. We will continue to rely on adjuncts more than we're inclined too. Our primary tool would be tuition increases."

Early registration numbers at UVU and SLCC had pointed toward even bigger enrollment gains, but Holland wondered whether a "soft cap" came into play because of the sheer impossibility of accommodating big growth in the face of fiscal constraints.

"Students come and can't find the class they want and drop out. We think that might be happening and that's why we're at 8 percent rather than 10 percent," Holland said. "We have a mission of access and if we can't provide that access as much as there is student demand, we would like to do better."

Enrollment changes at each Utah campus are fueled by different factors, although the economy clearly plays an over-arching role. The U.'s modest 4 percent bump, translating to almost 1,200 new students, is noteworthy because the state's flagship is more interested in student quality than quantity and the gains came in every category: The freshman class is up, transfers are up and, most gratifying to administrators, retention is up, indicating more students are staying to complete degrees, according to Paul Brinkman, vice president for budget and planning. But most interesting is the U.'s 450-student rise in the number of graduate students.

Second-year MBA student Rena Everton, who holds a bachelor's in English and psychology from Utah State University, remains gainfully employed but decided a master's was crucial to maintaining viability in a quickly changing marketplace.

"It's the reality of life," said Everton, who works in human resources in the information technology industry. "Companies are brutally honest. If you're not adding to the bottom line, either because your skills are out of date or the company changed direction, it's 'So long, sayonara, and good luck.' "

Even USU and College of Eastern Utah reversed trends toward declining enrollment.