Utah colleges gave out their biggest pay increases in decades. Here’s why they’re still worried.

Staffers received pay increases at the beginning of this month.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jana Mitchell teaches a surgical technology class at Salt Lake Community College in West Jordan on Wednesday, June 28, 2023. SLCC will increase full-time employee pay this year by 7%.

Employees at Utah colleges just received their biggest overall raise in decades — but with inflation and skyrocketing housing prices, some school leaders feel only “cautiously optimistic” about how much the boost will help them retain staff.

“The day-to-day costs of everything from child care to housing to pet food to groceries is all up,” said Lisa Rigtrup, operations manager in the Institutional Review Board at the University of Utah. “… Every little bit helps, but it’s pretty tough out there for everyone right now.”

Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature decided to grant Utah colleges enough funding for them to give pay increases up to 8.75% — but institutions get to decide exactly how the money is distributed.

The budget increase for raises is the largest Dave Woolstenhulme, commissioner for the Utah System of Higher Education, said he has seen in his 30 years working with colleges and universities in the state.

The second largest was last fiscal year, when a 5.75% increase was approved.

“This year is awesome for our employees and they definitely deserve it,” Woolstenhulme said. “I think it came about because of inflation across the board, and I think every employer has seen that — almost regardless of what industry you’re in.”

The Mountain West, which includes Utah, saw a 15.4% increase in inflation from January 2021 to August 2022, although it has since started to improve across the country. Key prices were up 3% nationally in June, the smallest increase in the consumer price index in over two years.

‘Cautiously optimistic’

The University of Utah gave an overall 5.5% raise for campus employees who do not work in its hospital and clinics.

The funding for this increase was given to each of the U.’s 1,000 “budgeting units” — which include departments within individual colleges, the campus bookstore and commuter services, for example — as a block of money that leaders could allocate strategically, depending on each group’s needs and to provide more equitable salaries.

“We’re very grateful for the appropriation from the Legislature,” Chief Human Resource Officer Jeff Herring said. “It goes a long way, especially in today’s market with the cost of living and everything with the labor market.”

Rigtrup said she’s hoping the raises will help with employee retention and recruitment at the U. — something the college has struggled with in recent years. With inflation and rising housing prices, she said, “I know personally, several folks that have had to take on second jobs and things like that to make ends meet.”

Average rental costs increased by about 34% to 41% in Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties from 2018 to 2022, according to recent data from The University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Utah State University is giving a general 6% increase to all full-time employees who receive benefits, said spokesperson Amanda DeRito. The remaining funds will be used for increases that help fix equity issues and salary compression — a situation where the salaries of long-term employees have have not kept pace with market rates.

In St. George, Utah Tech University gave a 7% increase to all full-time, ongoing employees. All employees also received a one-time bonus payment equivalent to 1.75% of their salary in August.

Stacey Schmidt, staff association president, said employees are grateful and for her personally, it will help her household a “great deal.”

“Ever since gas, food and other prices have skyrocketed, we’ve had to be a lot more mindful of our spending and frugal with our budget,” she said. “This generous raise will give us just the budgetary breathing room we’ve been needing.”

Increases for Utah’s community colleges

Utah’s two community colleges — Salt Lake Community College and Snow College — have struggled with decreasing enrollment rates since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“Tuition has been down so we’ve been having to do budget cuts every year,” said Tim Sheehan, vice president of government and community relations.

Salt Lake Community College gave a 7% increase to all full-time employees — from professors to janitors, said Sheehan.

“Being in education these last few years has been really difficult — there’s been a lot of pressure put on institutions of higher education [and] public education,” Sheehan said. “And so it’s a fairness issue. We need to do everything we can to be fair to these employees and to treat them well.”

The minimum wage for jobs at SLCC will also increase from $14 to $15, and adjunct professor pay will increase from $930 to $1,000 per contact hour — which means the time professors spend with students in formal instruction, such as $3,000 per semester for a three-credit course.

SLCC President Deneece Huftalin said in a statement that the increases are key for the university to “retain our extraordinary employees.”

Snow College decided on a general 6% increase for all full-time and permanent part-time hourly employees, but the percentage varies for some, depending on when they were hired, said Marci Larsen, chief of staff.

How do college pay increases work?

Every year during the Utah legislative session, lawmakers approve raises for state-funded employees, which includes everyone from law enforcement personnel to health and human service employees to higher education faculty and staff.

The Legislature regularly covers 75% of pay increases for higher education, with colleges paying the remaining 25%, mostly from tuition revenue, Woolstenhulme said.

However, in October 2022, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox called on colleges in the state to freeze tuition for the 2023-24 school year. Since it’s harder for colleges to fund raises without increasing tuition, this year the legislature decided to cover 87.5% instead of 75% of the pay increases.

Each institution then set its own priorities, Woolstenhulme said.

“You could say, ‘We’re going to give everybody a 5% [raise] and then we’ll use the remaining for market adjustments or whatever that looks like,’ ” he said. “So each institution went about it a little bit differently, working with their local board of trustees of how they wanted to give those increases.”

Not ‘one and done’

Gina Alfred, president of the SLCC Staff Association, said employees at the college are grateful for the increase. But she hopes pay continues to escalate to match the soaring cost of living right now.

“Employees that are probably making six figures that are getting an increase, of course, it’s significant, it’s great,” Alfred said. “But for employees, particularly, part-time employees and staff ... it will help, but once taxes are taken out, it’s almost as if there is not a real increase that was given.”

Alfred added that for the majority of SLCC’s staff, she doesn’t think this year’s increase will make a “hugely significant impact.”

Rigtrup said she’s hopeful this increase will “stem the bleeding,” for now, with the U.’s difficulties with employee retention, though she believes there’s still more that needs to be done.

“I’m hopeful that the next few years will help to alleviate some of that,” she said, “but I definitely think [we shouldn’t] treat this as a one-and-done situation this year. It’s going to take more than that.”

Clarification • Noon, July 19, 2023: This story has been updated to more clearly explain how adjunct professors are paid.