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Utah colleges and universities were advised Wednesday to prepare for yet another cut in state appropriations of 7 percent for a total of $42 million. The announcement prompted one lawmaker to suggest that big regional schools should stop admitting unprepared high school graduates.
Utah Valley University may have no choice, President Matthew Holland told a legislative panel. After two years of budget cuts in the face of swelling enrollment, UVU already suffers from a shortage of space and advisers, and relies too much on adjunct faculty, while 60 percent of every incoming class requires some remedial coursework.
UVU is at a critical point, with enrollment topping 32,000 as students fill the Orem school's new four-year programs, Holland said. UVU already had the lowest per-student funding in the state before the budget carnage and enrollment boom began in 2009. Taxpayer spending per full-time student has slipped to $2,800, down from $4,000 just a few years ago, making UVU the only Utah school where students shoulder a greater share of the cost of their instruction than the state.
The quality of a UVU education, even its accreditation, are at stake, and excluding those with poor grade-point averages is a real possibility, Holland said.
"That would mean a fundamental shift in our mission and the role we play in the state," he added.
But limiting enrollment could have a positive impact, said Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, who co-chairs the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
"We're sending a lot of people to college whose brains have been turned off," he said. For too long, Utah high school students have slacked off, knowing they would get into college upon graduation because there are "zero" expectations for them to prepare.
"I'd like to see these students show some justification that the taxpayer should make a huge investment in that kid. If their grades are horrible, they haven't shown that justification," Urquhart said. "We wouldn't be talking about turning away many people. We just won't take people who show zero likelihood of success in higher ed."
Limiting enrollment might actually help Utah reach the ambitious college attainment goals outlined in the new 2020 Plan for Higher Education by steering weaker students to applied-technology colleges, he said.
Higher education officials who didn't embrace Urquhart's proposal suggested the solution lies in making the senior year in high school "more meaningful." David Jordan, who chairs the State Board of Regents, acknowledged that the number of Utah freshman needing remedial math is "obscene."
"It's unacceptable, it's wasteful in a dramatic way," he said.
But helping poor performers turn around is part of the unique "genius" of the American system of higher education.
"We are the great country of second chances. We try to take people wherever they are in their lives, and we try to have a system of community college to help move people forward in their life," Jordan told Urquhart.
At some point, the state has to resume investing in higher education, said Dixie State College President Stephen Nadauld, noting that the share of the state budget devoted to higher education has shrunk from 32 to 18 percent since 1980. During that time, Utah has been knocked from No. 4 in the nation in college attainment the share of adult residents with degrees to the middle of the pack at about 40 percent. As a result, incomes and tax revenues have lagged.
Dixie, the state's fastest-growing college, can't accept further cuts without undermining its mission, Nadauld said.
"The easy solutions have already been addressed," he said. "We would have to look at bone and sinew, whole departments. We could eliminate allied health and the education programs. It doesn't make sense for our community."
R Lawmakers said Wednesday they may cut another $42 million, or 7 percent, from higher education despite two prior years of budget cuts and enrollment growth. School presidents warned their institutions are reaching a breaking point, with an overreliance on adjunct faculty and a dearth of advisers and space. According to William Sederburg, Utah's commissioner of higher education, cutting $42 million would mean eliminating 2,600 courses and 640 jobs.
Officials said one way to backfill the hole would be to charge students who already have more than enough credits to graduate the full cost of the courses they take about triple in-state tuition.