Study: Utah pays too little, students too much, for college

Education • Consultant says a $140M boost in state funding needed to restore balance.
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Utah has a long way to go to fund public colleges and universities at levels needed to meet degree-attainment goals embraced by state leaders, according to a new study.

The study, commissioned by the State Board of Regents, found Utah schools generally receive less state funding than similar schools elsewhere. That means students bear much more of the financial burden for their education than their peers in other states.

Utah Valley University, which has Utah's biggest student body, is also the biggest outlier in terms of state funding. The $2,522 it receives for each full-time student is far lower than its out-of-state peers, as well as any other Utah school, according to the study, which Regents will discuss at a meeting Wednesday.

At teaching-intensive schools such as UVU, which is geared toward students who lack the means or preparation to attend research institutions, "the state ought to bear a higher proportion of educating the student," said Regents Chairman David Jordan.

The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) conducted the study as part of Utah's shift to a mission-based funding model, authorized by the Legislature last year. The study's goal was to determine where state funding for Utah schools stands relative to peer schools.

The biggest inequities occur among the state's three largest open-admissions schools: Salt Lake Community College, Weber State University and especially UVU. Southern Utah University is also near the bottom among its peers.

At UVU, the state bears just 40 percent of the cost, far less than the 60 percent recommended by the Regents' consultant. The study is further proof that UVU's funding is out of balance and out of line with what has worked in other states, according to President Matthew Holland.

"The system and the state have to recognize there is a problem and something has to be done about it. This isn't some clever way to increase our funding. We really are underfunded," Holland said. "We hope this will translate into changes that will help UVU execute on its fundamental mission. There are issues of fairness, but it is really about being funded at a level commensurate with what we are being asked to do."

Had Regents' target funding models been met for SLCC and UVU for 2009-10, tuition at those schools would be a lot cheaper — $1,854 and $2,655 a year, respectively.┬áThat year, SLCC students paid tuition and fees totaling $2,790 while UVU students paid $4,048.

The Regents' funding-level goals vary among schools, depending on their roles. The board wants to see the state cover 70 percent of operating expenses at community colleges, 60 percent at regional universities and 55 percent at research institutions.

At the private Brigham Young University, by contrast, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shoulders as much as three-fourths of the cost, making the Provo school Utah's best bargain, at least for high-achieving students of the Mormon faith.

The NCHEMS study calculated that an additional $140 million in ongoing state funding would be needed to bring all eight public colleges and universities into compliance with the targets.

Higher-education officials are under no illusion that such funding will materialize anytime soon. Rather, they hope the study will guide future funding allocations according to schools' missions.

"You don't have to eat this elephant in one bite," Jordan said. "What we want to communicate to the Legislature is this is a sensible way of funding higher education. As you have money available, put it toward the institutions in a way that is consistent with policy-driven principles."

Meanwhile, funding isn't the only thing in short supply at UVU.

According to another study to be submitted to Regents on Wednesday, the Orem school's physical space is far too small to accommodate its swelling student body. That report found the school has only 35 to 43 square feet per full-time student, nearly half what would be needed to adequately handle its needs in 2020, when full-time enrollment is expected to grow to as much as 38,000.

"On the one hand, this shows what a remarkable institution UVU has become. With these challenges, we have become an attractive destination," Holland said. "On the other hand, it says if we are to be a growth institution, we can't continue on the current model and be expected to do what great teaching institutions are supposed to do."