Enrollment caps at Salt Lake Community College. Goodbye to small classes and graduate programs at Southern Utah University. Research grants drying up at the University of Utah.
That's what would be in store for higher education if the Legislature exacts another 5 percent in cuts, institution presidents told lawmakers Tuesday. Utah colleges and universities will be eating their "seed corn," dooming them to a future of mediocrity or worse, officials warned.
"Twenty years from now, do we want to have terrific prisons and terrible universities?" asked U. President Michael Young. "The future for our children and grandchildren will be dramatically different than the one we can create."
Legislators heard from university presidents and public educators as they began considering about $400 million in prospective budget cuts across state government ahead of the annual session that begins Jan. 25.
The Legislature looks to trim $35 million in higher education spending and not replace $65 million in federal stimulus money that had softened this year's 17 percent cut. This results in a roughly $100 million difference with Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed 2010-11 budget, which would hold higher education to current funding levels by tapping "rainy day" funds.
For Utah's K-12 system, the State Board of Education and the governor are recommending no additional cuts this year and that schools receive the same amount of funding next school year as they got this year. Even that, however, would mean less money per pupil as schools expect an additional 11,000 students next school year.
Granite School District Superintendent Stephen Ronnenkamp said his district cut $28.5 million between last school year and this one. He said an additional 2 percent cut next school year would amount to $5.2 million less for the district, which could mean 100 teachers' jobs and an increase in class size.
"I worry about impacting the classroom, increasing class size, but that may be the only thing left that school districts have," Ronnenkamp said.
Senate budget chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said lawmakers hope it won't come to that.
"I hope people don't walk out of this meeting and say, 'Oh, we're going to lose 4 percent in public education and not fund our growth,'" Hillyard said. "Those are all decisions to be made. We just need to see what we're looking at, how ugly it is, and how we can plug it all back in."
According to Young, Utah's universities and colleges are already among the nation's most efficient for producing degrees, controlling tuition, and generating outside research grants. So the schools can't be expected to solve their budget woes by imposing more efficiencies, he said.
"The rubber band is already stretched as far as it can go," Young said. "This represents a profound threat to the university's ability to conduct its teaching and research missions," he added, echoing sentiments voiced by his counterparts across the state.
The presidents and Regents implored lawmakers to view higher education as an investment that will help lift Utah's economy. The U., for example, brought in $358 million in research money last year, creating 7,100 jobs at an average salary of $61,000, according to Young. The cuts would undermine the school's ability to support that research and retain key faculty.
"By the time we see the impact it will be too late to do anything about it," Young warned.
SLCC will have to lay off the 214 adjuncts it hired to handle this year's 4,000-student enrollment surge if the stimulus money is not replaced next year, according to college president Cynthia Bioteau.
SLCC's tuition is already too high, so tapping students' wallets is not an option, she said. The college cut 120 positions, condensed some degree programs and runs classes from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week.
If the fiscal bleeding doesn't stop, SLCC's open-access mission will be in serious peril, Bioteau said.
De facto enrollment caps may already be in place at SLCC and Utah Valley University in Orem, where officials suspect some prospective students are delaying college because they can't get into classes.
UVU junior Christina Lowe told lawmakers many students are falling off track after failing to get courses in core curricula for their majors.
"They want to be educated members of society and make a contribution, but their graduation dates are being pushed back," she said. "On-line courses are a good resource, but there are advantages to being in the classroom."
SUU, a 7,500-student campus in Cedar City, is cutting scholarships and closing its student health center, said President Michael Benson. Now it may eliminate graduate programs, cap enrollment, defer maintenance, and replace full-time faculty with adjuncts, threatening its status as "best in the West" in terms of student value, he said.