Utah college enrollment at historic levels

'It's packed. It's crazy,' laments UVU student leader.
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Few students know the ropes of higher education better than Joseph Watkins. But even he had trouble getting the classes he needs to graduate from Utah Valley University this spring. The reason is booming enrollment, and it is filling course sections and stretching student services mighty thin at UVU and other schools

"It's packed. It's crazy. You're walking down the halls, getting knocked over," said Watkins, the former UVU student-body president and current director of the Utah Student Association.

Reeling from historic budget cuts and bracing for even deeper ones, Utah's public colleges and universities this year absorbed an equally historic enrollment surge of more than 13,000 students, or 9.5 percent, according to spring semester enrollment figures released Thursday. The surge is the largest year-to-year enrollment gain in the 42-year history of the Utah System of Higher Education.

Half of the growth occurred on the state's two big urban, open-access institutions, Salt Lake Community College and UVU. Those schools combined for 6,600 more students than at this time last year, continuing a trend that seems incompatible with a shrinking state investment.

Still, UVU President Matthew Holland found reason to rejoice in the numbers.

"There is cause for celebration for what this institution has become. It's a destination university for students increasingly from around the state," he said. "That's a reflection of the experience students are having around here. ... The greatest growth is in continuing students, not students out of high school."

But there is precious little room at the Orem campus, considered the state's most intensively used piece of educational real estate, and Holland used Thursday's enrollment numbers to renew his plea for state funding to build a $50 million addition to his puny science building.

"I'm extremely proud of this institution and how it has absorbed these students and still maintained a good-quality experience," Holland said. "Without adding a single brick and in the face of budget cuts, this is a remarkable achievement."

Every semester, at the end of the third week, officials count the number of students taking credit courses at the state's nine degree-granting schools. The past two years, as the economy tanked, enrollment numbers spiked upward each semester with new students flooding onto campuses to brush up on their skills for an increasingly competitive job market.

But the economic factors driving people to school are also costing the campuses millions in taxpayer dollars. The Legislature cut the higher education budget by 8.5 percent this fiscal year and is now considering a 22 percent cut for next year, while Gov. Gary Herbert proposes leaving funding at current levels.

"We are in uncharted territory," said Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg. "We are worried about maintaining an affordable quality education in such challenging circumstances. It is very difficult to project how much leaner these institutions can become."

Dixie State College, serving an area plagued with high unemployment from the collapse of the construction sector, saw the biggest percentage gain this spring. Even College of Eastern Utah, once the state's fastest-shrinking school, is now among the fastest-growing, reporting a 19 percent bounce, or 345 students. Most of that growth occurred at CEU's Blanding campus, which has succeeded in attracting many new students from nearby, though out-of-state, tribal communities.

"This is important because it serves students who [otherwise] wouldn't go to college," said campus director Guy Denton.

While the enrollment surge is welcome news for education leaders, it summons the specter of enrollment caps, which erode the open-access mission on which many Utah institutions pride themselves.

Holland said hundreds of students have signed up for UVU courses at the start of recent semesters, but drop out in frustration before the head counts are made in the third week. As a result of campus crowding, students are taking longer to graduate or not graduating at all as Utah's education attainment rates keep sagging behind the rest of the nation, higher ed advocates say.

"For the Utah Student Association, the No. 1 concern is preserving access," said Watkins. "I know the times are tough, but at the same time we aren't getting the services we and our parents paid taxes for."