Utah’s colleges raise tuition with little to no scrutiny, audit finds

(Salt Lake Tribune file photo) At the University of Utah, the afternoon sun shines on the front of the Park Building and the statue of John Rocky Park, who was president of the U. from 1869 to 1892.

The board that oversees tuition hikes at Utah colleges regularly approves them with little or no scrutiny — never rejecting a proposed increase, rarely asking questions about requests and failing to significantly analyze how the additional money will be spent, according to a scathing state audit released Monday.

That “superficial review,” the new report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor General says, has meant that students at the state’s eight public universities have collectively footed $131.7 million in tuition increases over the past five years.

“We’re calling for analysis to show where that need is,” said Kade Minchey, audit manager. “Our concern is that tuition has been increased with minimal independent analysis to support the increases.”

Each spring, the Utah Board of Regents approves a uniform percentage increase for all the colleges in its system. This “tier one” increase — 1.5 percent this year, 2.5 percent the year before — covers inflation and staff compensation.

Individual universities can then lobby for an extra “tier two” increase to include more expenses, such as the construction of a new stadium or hiring more faculty. (The University of Utah, for example, asked for and received the largest additional increase for the 2018-2019 school year, raking in $7.6 million on top of the first tier.)

The board receives recommendations for both tiers from the commissioner of higher education, compiled by staff who meet privately with the universities and provide no public minutes of what was said behind doors. The regents then give the green light to those, the audit concludes, without much discussion, debate or examination of where the funds will be used. And it has never denied a request.

This creates a process that is largely unfettered and essentially allows schools to raise tuition with few checks or limitations, Minchey said.

The audit puts it this way: “When asked what kind of vetting is conducted on the institutions’ tuition requests, a member of senior management told us that commissioner staff perform no independent analysis, either on the reasonableness of the requests, or the accuracy of the numbers provided by the institutions prior to the Board of Regents’ approval.”

In response, the Utah Board of Regents acknowledged its shortcomings and announced plans Monday to restructure its system for approving hikes. Starting this coming spring, there will no longer be tiered increases or uniform rates across all schools. Instead, each university will be required to present a individualized request for a tuition change during a public hearing.

Board members will listen to the proposals, review them and then approve a percentage increase they deem appropriate for each institution.

“We’re very concerned about keeping tuition affordable,” said Harris Simmons, chair of the Board of Regents, during a report on the state’s findings Monday at the Capitol.

The Legislative Audit Subcommittee spent a grueling 90 minutes going over the report with members expressing disappointment in the Board of Regents, concern about the lack of review of tuition and fear that the changes won’t come soon enough. They, too, grilled Simmons, as well as David Buhler, Utah’s commissioner of higher education, for not being more transparent.

“I’ve seen a lot of audits in my time here, and this is one of the worst,” said Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “This system has raised tuition to the highest degree possible.”

“We can’t have the kind of slack that this audit has exposed,” added Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.

“I want to reject the notion that because we have low tuition that the tuition increases we see are OK,” noted House Speaker Greg Hughes, who co-chairs the subcommittee.

Utah’s public colleges, which do have some of the lowest tuition rates in the nation, are unique in that, unlike other with state jobs, the Legislature designates only 75 percent of the funds needed to pay for annual compensation increases rather than the full 100 percent. The purpose of tier one tuition hikes is to cover the rest.

But the annual uniform increase is determined by the institution that would require the largest percentage to close the gap. And that amount is then applied to all universities under the Board of Regents’ oversight.

This year, Snow College set the bar with a need for a 1.5 percent increase. That means the seven other schools received more than needed to match (including Southern Utah University, which needed only 1 percent). The audit found that resulted in an extra $3 million spent this year.

The subcommittee questioned where that money has gone and why the increase is uniform instead of just fitting to the need. They also criticized that the tier one percentage is sometimes increased still beyond that by an advisory group made up of the college’s presidents — which does not hold public meetings.

Overall, it’s amounted to $65.6 million over the past five years beyond what was needed to cover the 25 percent not included in the Legislature’s funding. King said that’s hard to justify.

“When you have increases that far exceed the need, it appears to me that there’s cost shifting to the students,” the representative noted.

Wilson added that he was baffled by the lack of discussion over the increases. When the Legislature increases taxes, he said, there’s “hearing after hearing. We analyze the data. We argue about it. We debate it.” The Regents, he said, are “basically raising taxes for students” and not spending any substantial time weighing the proposals. It’s just a rubber stamp.

The Regents also approved an additional $30.5 million over the past five years with tier two tuition increases. The majority of that went to the University of Utah, which has collected $18.65 million during that time and has the highest public tuition in the state.

The audit says the Board of Regents did nothing to verify at any point what the U. would use that money on or to analyze if it was necessary.

For the 2014-2015 school year, the school’s tuition was $6,889 annually. By 2018-2019, the end of the five-year period the audit covered, it was $7,997.

U. spokesman Chris Nelson said the university looks forward “to reviewing the findings and working closely with the Board of Regents moving forward on any changes that may be needed.”

Buhler defended the process, in part, and said the money goes to additional compensations, faculty promotions and student aid. He also said the Board of Regents began its own evaluation of its policies last year and will have the audit’s recommendations — including the public hearings — in place within six months.

“We are revising those in a very robust way,” he said. “We agree that good data is critical to good decisions.”