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Empty lab coats are a growing problem at Utah's two state research universities.

Out-of-state colleges are luring would-be graduate students with better-paid teaching and research jobs than Utah can offer, higher education officials told state lawmakers last week.

Utah State University and the University of Utah don't have the funding to front attractive graduate posts, administrators argued before the Higher Education Appropriations Committee.

It means the schools risk falling behind in research and losing top faculty, said Lance Seefeldt, a USU biochemistry professor.

The two schools are asking for a combined $10 million to plug what they call a significant drain.

"These are kids coming out of undergrad and they've got debts," Seefeldt said. "A little bit of money goes a long way for them."

In the past two decades, the number of graduate students in the programs Seefeldt oversees has dropped by nearly half — from 60 students to 33. In recent years, rates of master's and doctorate students have gone up slightly, but officials maintain they should be climbing higher.

A lack of new recruits isn't the only problem. In some programs, the caliber of students has dipped, attorneys for the universities wrote to legislators in a letter this week.

"It's not just the numbers. It's also the quality," Seefeldt said.

The Board of Regents, the governing body of the state's higher education network, is asking state lawmakers to cut the funding pie 60/40, with the state's flagship university taking most of the money.

It's not the top priority for the Regents, said higher education commissioner Dave Buhler.

Faculty pay and funding for new teaching initiatives come first.

But funding for graduate student programs is still high.

"Our stipends for graduate students are low," he said. "There's a need there."

Graduate stipends at the U. "have not kept pace" with the national average, university attorneys wrote in their memo to lawmakers.

No national database tracks graduate stipends.

Meanwhile, USU attorneys wrote that more paid posts and other opportunities will help alleviate "struggles" that have kept the school from reaching higher accreditation standings.

University officials expect the additional state funding to create two dozen new positions and more slots for other graduate teaching assistants.

In his pitch to the panel last week, U. President David Pershing said Utah employers want more medical workers, including chemists and nurses.

"I am getting beat up in the community that we're not turning out enough of these kinds of people," he said.

Pershing made the case that retaining more students in those disciplines with salaries ranging from $80,000 to $100,000 would spell good returns for the state.

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