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Sienna Scheid was looking for a way to marry her passions for conservation and good design.

But she did not want the journey to saddle her with thousands in debt.

So, Scheid took on a more rigorous high school course load that eventually earned her $2,400 a year from the state.

Now, she is getting ready to graduate from Salt Lake Community College with a degree in graphic design. And she has no outstanding education bills.

Scheid credits her good financial standing to Utah's Regents Scholarship, which rewards students who pass certain benchmarks in high school and maintain good grades in college.

"This one was a no-brainer," she said, because it was heftier than other grants. "Without Regents, I would be in debt already. I had some college savings, but it's pretty much gone by now."

In 2015-16, SLCC tuition and fees come to about $1,700 per semester for a 15-credit load. At the University of Utah, the state's priciest public school, the scholarship wouldn't go as far. A similar class load at the state's flagship school is about $4,000 a semester.

Since the grant's inception in 2008, it has provided Scheid and thousands of other Utah students with a total of $27 million. Now, the Board of Regents wants to expand the program for the 2016-2017 school year. The governing board of Utah's public colleges and universities is asking for roughly $8 million from the Legislature.

A legislative panel received a memo asking for the increase in September, but it did not discuss the program at that meeting. The Higher Education Appropriations Committee is scheduled to revisit the request again in November. It is a small piece of the total $77 million proposed higher education budget — a 9 percent increase from last year.

Regents believe the program will help more students not only enroll, but also graduate faster by helping them afford to go to school full time.

Utah's college students typically are slow to earn diplomas, often taking six years or more.

The picture may be improving. Enrollment figures released last week show there are about 2.8 percent more full-time students across the state's public college campuses, totaling 120,000.

"We know that those students are more likely to graduate or complete," said Higher Education Commissioner Dave Buhler. Buhler hopes scholarships will help drive the rate of full-time students even higher.

To qualify for the Regents program, high school seniors must have biology, chemistry, physics and upper-level math courses on their transcripts, the idea being that these courses provide a strong foundation for college-level work. Utah students must take science in order to graduate, but can achieve a diploma with classes more basic than the scholarship requires.

Students also need to have a 3.0 GPA and meet other basic requirements to earn a baseline award of $1,000 for college. The scholarship is renewable, and better grades earn higher returns.

Scheid says it was sometimes a pain to take courses she was less interested in, such as physics. But she does not regret it. The grant will help her earn a graphic design diploma in just three years, on top of a two-year associate degree.

It also has given her more freedom to explore by helping her to afford more courses each semester. She took additional art classes and mountain biking, for example.

"It's not me looking at my bank account and saying, 'I've got five classes. I can only do requirements.' "

Word about the scholarship appears to be getting out. This year, it grew by 22 percent. And regents expect a similar uptick next year as a wave of missionaries returns after their service for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

College enrollment this year is up by 2 percent, and Buhler expects the number of students to climb more next year.

"It's kind of modest, so it's not going to be difficult to handle this year," Buhler said. "But over time, we need help from the state" for colleges' own costs and for scholarship programs, Buhler said.

Buhler's staff will be pitching the Regents grants and other similar programs in the coming weeks. November is college application month.

This year alone, 3,000 students received the money. And applying is in their favor. In 2015, nearly three in four students who applied for the scholarship ended up receiving it.

Scheid, already a freelance designer, hopes to get a job creating infographics and other visual elements for environmental advocacy groups. She also is considering an advanced degree in environmental science. But she won't qualify for the Regents Scholarship a second time — it goes only to undergraduates.

"It's been a launchpad for me," Scheid said. —

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