After a scathing report, Utah’s colleges are requesting some of the lowest tuition increases in a decade

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah students make their way to class on Thursday, March 28, 2019.

Utah’s public colleges are requesting some of the lowest tuition increases this year than they have in the past decade — an adjustment that comes after state auditors last fall scrutinized the largely unregulated process where high increases were approved without question.

That scathing report spurred the Utah Board of Regents to create a new system requiring each university to present an individualized request for a tuition change at a public hearing. The first attempt Thursday lasted more than six hours and included one college that asked for no increase.

“I think it’s a real improvement in the process,” said Harris Simmons, board chairman. “We’re getting a level of detail that we’ve never really drilled into before.”

Previously, members gave the green light to university proposals without much discussion, debate or examination of where the funds would be used. And the board never denied a request. The audit found that resulted in potentially $65 million given to the state’s eight public colleges over the past five years beyond what was needed.

On Thursday, the panel heard reports from the schools’ presidents about tuition increases for 2019-2020. Almost all of the leaders said their requests were crafted to the minimum amount possible to cover staff salaries and programs to help students.

“We’re trying to do what we can,” said Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin.

Still, board members listened and asked tough questions: Why do you need that much funding? Could you deal with less? What part of your request is a priority? Is there any shifting you can do at your institution to come up with the money elsewhere?

They’ll finish reviewing the proposals Friday morning and then approve a percentage increase they deem appropriate for each institution. It’s possible they freeze tuition hikes entirely. They could also approve only enough to cover faculty raises, which all schools have to account for.

Utah’s public colleges, which do have some of the lowest tuition rates in the nation, are unique in that, unlike with other state jobs, the Legislature designates only 75 percent of the funds needed to pay for annual compensation increases rather than the full 100 percent. Tuition hikes are generally expected to cover the rest. This year, lawmakers designated $29 million for those costs.

With that, it’s likely to be a tense vote on the proposals.

At the end of the hearing Thursday, members disagreed about how to define a justified hike. Regent Daniel Campbell argued that the University of Utah’s request for a 3.2 percent increase — about $128 more per student each semester and down from an earlier 3.9 percent — was worthwhile because “we see the returns.” The school has boosted its graduation rates from 55 percent in 2011 to 70 percent in 2017.

“I don’t see a lot of things that are wasted,” Campbell said. “That’s not what I’m coming away with.”

Other schools requested money for mental health and campus safety initiatives, which Simmons said deserve “some really critical discussion.” He also questioned if the 1.7 percent hike requested by Utah Valley University, the largest college in the state, was enough.

“It is a tough balance,” added David Buhler, Utah’s commissioner of higher education. “Someone can always say it’s too high. Someone can always say we need more. And they’re both right.”

Overall, the tuition increases are down since 2010 when a handful of schools were requesting more than 12 percent each year. The requests this year, which range from 5 percent at Dixie State University to 0 percent at Southern Utah University, are listed below from highest to lowest and include the plans each president presented for how the extra money would be used:

Dixie State University

• Proposed increase: 5 percent, or $111 more per semester

• New tuition cost for average in-state student: $2,340 per semester

• Increase approved last year: 3.5 percent

Dixie State in southern Utah is one of the few that requested a bigger hike this year than last.

The school was designated as a state university in 2013 and has moved up into a Division I placement for its sports team. With those changes, said President Richard Williams, it needs more funding to catch up and recruit faculty.

“We’re a growing university,” he added. “There’s a lot of infrastructure that we don’t have.”

With the proposed increase, Williams said, Dixie State would spend a half million dollars to fund scholarships for its athletes. Another $150,000 would go toward advancing professors in tenure. And $75,000 would fund a new campus safety sergeant to help the school move to 24-hour policing on campus.

Utah State University

• Proposed increase: 3.25 percent, or $103 more per semester

• New tuition cost for average in-state student: $3,274 per semester

• Increase approved last year: 3.9 percent

With its proposed increase, USU would collect an additional $4.1 million.

President Noelle Cockett said the school “did a really tough look” to get to that number, including not requesting extra money for its child care center. When asked, most students, she said, opposed spending more for that program.

“I’m not here to do something that students don’t see the additional value of their dollars,” she said.

The northern Utah school will instead fund $227,500 more in scholarships, $1.1 million in faculty promotions and $180,000 toward a math tutoring center. The rates will vary slightly for the campuses in Blanding and Price.

University of Utah

• Proposed increase: 3.2 percent, or $128 more per semester

• New tuition cost for average in-state student: $4,126 per semester

• Increase approved last year: 3.9 percent

The state’s flagship university and research institution has the highest tuition of any public school in the state, but the increase requested this year will be the lowest for the campus in nearly 20 years.

The U. had originally requested a 3.9 percent increase but dropped to 3.2 percent after the Legislature passed a budget for higher education that designated more than administrators expected. Still, most of the funds raised by the hike will go toward staff compensation and making salaries equitable across genders, races and departments.

In addition to those increases, President Ruth Watkins has asked for $1 million to go toward improving campus safety after a student was killed outside her dorm last fall.

“We certainly are at a time in the institution where our need to invest in safety training and assessment is high,” she said.

Regent Thomas Wright questioned whether some of the other asks in the proposal — such as workforce and maintenance allocations — were what students wanted or needed. Watkins responded that without the money, the university wouldn’t be able to retain top faculty or invest in getting students to graduate faster.

Snow College

• Proposed increase: 2.5 percent, or $42 more per semester

• New tuition cost for average in-state student: $1,705 per semester

• Increase approved last year: 1.5 percent

With the least expensive tuition among the eight public colleges in the state, Snow College President Gary Carlston, who is stepping down in May, said his only goal is to keep it “the most affordable.”

He’s asking for $45,000 for tenure promotions and $41,000 for departmental scholarships.

Salt Lake Community College

• Proposed increase: 2 percent, or $33 more per semester

• New tuition cost for average in-state student: $1,718 per semester

• Increase approved last year: 1.5 percent

Enrollment at SLCC has gone down the last two years, leaving the school with a population of slightly more than 29,000 students. With that decline, Huftalin, the president, said the institution has eliminated seven faculty and 10 administrative positions and repurposed 17 other staffers.

Most of the money it would get with the tuition increase — roughly $1 million — would go to paying the remaining professors a competitive salary and hiring extra police officers to extend patrols at their multiple campuses to 10 p.m. About $100,000 would be designated to expand advising for students.

Weber State University

• Proposed increase: 2 percent, or $49 more per semester

• New tuition cost for average in-state student: $2,495 per semester

• Increase approved last year: 2.5 percent

President Brad Mortensen, who stepped into office early this year, presented a simple proposal Thursday. One of the biggest chunks of funding requested by the school would be allocated for need-based scholarships.

Weber asked the Board of Regents to set aside a quarter of a million dollars to Dream Weber, a program that helps low-income students cover the tuition for their first two years of classes.

“We are conscientious of using all of our funding,” Mortensen said.

Utah Valley University

• Proposed increase: 1.7 percent, or $43 more per semester

• New tuition cost for average in-state student: $2,561 per semester

• Increase approved last year: 1.5 percent

Utah Valley University is the largest and fastest growing college in the state. By the latest count, it had 39,900 students. By 2027, it’s expected to jump to 51,000.

Still, it had the second lowest request for a tuition hike.

With its proposal, UVU would collect $2.3 million, which President Astrid Tuminez said will fund compensation matches, promotions and insurance all impacted by that growth. That includes, for example, a portion of the pay for 300 full-time faculty added over the past five years to keep up with the burgeoning student body.

The school was also one of the few to request money for mental health in tuition dollars rather than student fees. UVU is asking for $227,379 to expand its counseling services. With the money, it intends to hire two additional full-time therapists and one part-time psychiatric nurse practitioner.

“This one is critical,” Tuminez said. “Do we care enough?”

Southern Utah University

•Proposed increase: 0 percent

•Tuition cost for average in-state student: $3,003 per semester

•Increase approved last year: 1.5 percent

SUU is the only school to not request a tuition hike this year — something it has not done in 42 years.

The school has modest growth in its student population and decided to restructure to find money for staff pay, said President Scott Wyatt.

Campbell, the regent, added: “Wow. I want to congratulate you.”