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More college students will stay on track to graduate on time if Utah lawmakers hold tuition bumps this year to no more than 2.5 percent.
Higher education officials made the case this week at Utah's Capitol. Commissioner David Buhler challenged Higher Education Committee members to help students graduate faster and with less debt.
"If you do as much as you can," he said speaking on behalf of Utah's eight universities and colleges Friday, "we'll do as much as we can."
Leaders from Weber State University, Salt Lake Community College and others addressed the panel that will help divvy up millions in state money by mid-March, when the legislative session closes.
For a student at the University of Utah, the proposed tuition increase would hike the current $7,876 cost of a semester by about $200.
For Salt Lake Community College students, the pricetag for an average credit load would rise $43, up from the current $1,734.
Individual colleges could hike the fees even higher, if the Board of Regents approves the increases.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-Logan, questioned why tuition need go up at all. "I'd challenge that," he said.
But Buhler said students must shoulder at least some of the cost for a planned 3 percent raise for instructors and others, though the state is set to add a total of $29 million for teacher salaries at the eight schools.
The higher education committee doesn't control the purse strings, but it guides them, making suggestions for a final budget that must win approval from the House, Senate and governor.
Nationally, Utah is near the bottom of the pack for its rate of college students graduating within four years. Students at the state's public colleges and universities may take longer to graduate, but they are more likely to stay enrolled past the six-year window.
For example, "there are some people at Weber State who are still slogging it out after 14 years," university president Charles White told the panel.
Still, others said, Utah needs to do more to graduate students faster.
"We know what we're doing isn't working for them," said committee co-chairman Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George. "We need to do something more."
Speeding the process could prove tough, because many students work full-time. At Salt Lake Community College, for example, 30 percent of working students are juggling their studies alongside a 30-hour work week, said community college president Deneece Huftalin.
Higher Education Committee members also will consider in coming weeks: Increasing the pot of cash incentives for colleges that can prove they're graduating more students within six years and helping students stick to a semester-by-semester plan and connecting them with peer or faculty advisers.
Utah is one of 30 states, including neighboring Nevada and Wyoming, to assign such reward money for better course completion, speedier graduation or transfer rates, the number of degrees awarded and the number of low-income and minority graduates.