Several said there should be no tuition hikes at all. Others argued that a few schools should request more money.
In the end, after two days of intense back-and-forth, the board members that oversee tuition in Utah settled and approved some of the lowest increases for the state’s public colleges in the last decade.
“I think these are very reasonable numbers,” said Utah Board of Regents member Wilford Clyde on Friday. “The schools have gone through and justified why they want to have these increases.”
Dixie State University asked for and received the highest hike at 5 percent. Southern Utah University, the lowest, requested no increase in tuition.
Regent Thomas Wright said SUU should have been the example for all of the schools. “It’d be so hard for me to vote for a tuition increase for a student who can’t afford it,” he said.
Wright and Regent Sanchaita Datta were the only two to vote against approving the requests without change.
The changes are part of a larger trend of lower tuition increases for the eight public universities in the state. Four of the colleges this year requested smaller hikes than last year. And overall, the average increase for all of the schools combined is down every year since 2010 — when it was 8.7 percent — to 2.4 percent now.
Additionally, every school individually requested a smaller hike this year than at any time between 2008 and 2012.
“We’re on the right track,” said Regent Bob Marquardt. “There’s a lot we can do to make it affordable for every student in the state.”
The largest increase for 2019, too, is less than half of the biggest increase approved over the last decade — 12.5 percent by SUU in 2010.
The board reviewed the proposals starting Thursday under a new system spurred by a critical state audit released last fall. The report scrutinized the regents for annually approving hikes without question and without analyzing how the additional money would be spent. In that largely unfettered process, students at the state’s public universities collectively footed $131.7 million in tuition increases over the past five years.
The updated process this year required each university’s president to present an individual request for a tuition change at a public hearing. Board members asked questions and spent upwards of 10 hours debating the plans for funding staff salaries, increasing campus safety and supplementing mental health.
The presidents argued that they tried to request only the minimum amount possible to cover their needs.
“I think this process has been very, very healthy,” said Snow College President Gary Carlston. Board Chairman Harris Simmons added that it was “much better than we’ve had before.”
Before approving the plans as proposed, members tried to define when they could or should justify a hike. The increase of 3.2 percent at the University of Utah — or roughly $128 more per semester for the average student — was deemed worthwhile by one regent because it will go, in part, toward improving graduation rates (which have gone from 55 percent in 2011 to 70 percent in 2017).
Others questioned whether Utah Valley University’s proposal for a 1.7 percent increase, or $43 more per semester, was sufficient for the school that’s the biggest and fastest growing in the state. “Is that really enough?” asked David Buhler, Utah’s commissioner of higher education.
A hitch for some board members, though, was the tight timeline. Wright was concerned that the regents didn’t have a week or more to review the proposals and examine budget plans. He supported a motion that ultimately failed to delay a vote on the requests and get more input, concerned that there may be expenses that schools shouldn’t be asking students “to step up” and cover.
“If they’re getting money that’s not going to their core mission, then we need to re-evaluate,” he said. “... I know parents who are afraid to send their kids to school because they can’t afford it. I know people who are in crushing debt.”
This year, the state Legislature designated a significant $29 million to higher education for staff costs and $67 million for other projects and programs. “How is that not enough?” Wright asked.
Datta agreed that with such a surprisingly high allocation from the state and a thriving economy, it’s hard to “put that burden on students.” She wanted to know why the universities couldn’t shift money around to cover more expenses.
Presidents contended that they need to increase funding to retain top faculty and pay for promotions. No increase “is effectively a budget cut,” said Utah State University President Noelle Cockett. Dixie State President William Richards said money also is needed to be competitive athletically and recruit students with scholarships.
Ultimately, the majority of the board agreed. Here are the approved tuition increases, listed from highest percent to lowest with the dollar amount of the increase for an average in-state semester:
Dixie State University: 5 percent, or $111 more per semester
Utah State University: 3.25 percent, or $103 more per semester (USU in Price and Blanding: 4.2 percent, or $35 more per semester)
University of Utah: 3.2 percent, or $128 more per semester
Snow College: 2.5 percent, or $42 more per semester
Salt Lake Community College: 2 percent, or $33 more per semester
Weber State University: 2 percent, or $49 more per semester
Utah Valley University: 1.7 percent, or $43 more per semester
Southern Utah University: 0 percent