The number of college students in Utah is almost as large as Salt Lake City’s population

( Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Students at Utah Valley University head towards the Sorensen Student Center in October 2017. A newly released snapshot of enrollment at Utah public colleges shows a statewide 2.17 percent bump; UVU tallied the largest number of new students, at 2,649, an increase of 7.11 percent.

Utah’s largest college saw even more — and faster — growth this year than it did in 2017.

Utah Valley University, a sprawling campus tucked along the freeway in Orem, added 2,649 students this fall. That’s the biggest jump in head count numbers of any of the state’s eight public colleges, according to a “snapshot” enrollment report released Thursday by the Utah System of Higher Education about three weeks into the new semester.

The data show UVU’s population swelling by 7.11 percent to a total of 39,931 students. That’s higher even than last year’s 6.59 percent surge. And it cements the school’s spot as the largest public university in the state by more than 6,000 students above the flagship University of Utah.

“Everyone deserves access to a college education, and our growth is reflective of that,” the university’s new president, Astrid Tuminez, said in a prepared statement. She credits that partly to affordability — the school has the fourth cheapest tuition among the eight, at $5,036 per year — and partly to open enrollment, which means the college doesn’t base admissions on test scores or GPA.

Overall, total enrollment at Utah’s public universities continued to climb, up 2.17 percent statewide with an additional 3,915 students on campus. There are now almost 184,000 college students in the state. That’s nearly the population of Salt Lake City.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Southern Utah University saw the largest percentage gain with 7.69 percent growth since 2017 and 728 more students. The head count for the Cedar City school is now 10,196.

The school currently has its largest freshman class — 2,131 students — which is a 9.4 percent leap from last year.

“We’re proud of the caliber of students that are present in our freshman class and are thrilled with the growth,” Brandon Wright, assistant vice president for enrollment management, said in a news release from the school.

Meanwhile, enrollment at the University of Utah and Utah State University were essentially flat, with increases of less than 1 percent each.

That’s a slight change of course for USU, which previously had decreases in 2017 and 2016, which it said were due to changes to out-of-state scholarships and a new tuition deal that charged students a uniform price for 12 or more semester credits. But its on par for the U., which has slowed in growth in recent years.

Mary Parker, associate vice president for enrollment management at the U., said while the school isn’t seeing a big bump in its numbers overall, it also had its largest freshman class — which was more diverse and “academically qualified” than it has been before.

Of the 4,256 freshmen this year, a jump from 4,119 last year, 30 percent are students of color (80 more than in 2017). The class also increased the average ACT score to 26 and GPA to 3.63.

“We continue to move the needle on those numbers,” Parker said.

President Ruth Watkins has mentioned the challenges with enrollment, likely related to having the highest public school tuition in the state at nearly $8,000 annually for in-state students, and said Thursday the school is focused more on its graduation rates.

The U. collected it own data in coordination with the Utah System of Higher Education’s annual review and found that its graduation rate went up to 70 percent this past year from 67 percent. That still falls below its companion Pac-12 institutions, which average 80 percent. But it’s closer to Watkins’ goal of getting 75 percent of students to finish.

“We’re going to do that as we think about being the wonderful flagship institution of Utah," she said, “and for Utah.”

Additionally, there were decreases at Salt Lake Community College, which lost 464 students, and Snow College, which lost 49. That’s a bigger dip for SLCC than last year, when the school had 281 fewer students enroll.

That’s a common problem for community colleges, said SLCC spokesman Joy Tlou, which see their populations fluctuate with the economy. And it’s an extra challenge for SLCC, where at least 70 percent of the students have jobs on top of taking classes.

“Their work lives are competing with their time at school,” Tlou said.

But the overall trends tend positive. Another 57,000 students, according to the Utah System of Higher Education report, are expected to enroll in the state’s public colleges over the next decade.

Reporter Scott Pierce contributed to this story.