Utah's approach towards higher education policy represents a policymaking process where the outcomes match fairly well the policies that have been implemented. In other words, Utah gets pretty much what you would expect from its higher education system, given the policies it has adopted. As the state looks forward, it is unclear whether the policies and policy approach that it has relied on will continue to be effective. Utah has always emphasized access, but the pressure now to educate more young people and to substantially improve the productivity of the system may put pressure on that commitment.
The long-standing policy of funding enrollment growth has encouraged institutions to expand capacity and establish initial access to higher education as a fundamental priority. This approach works when the money is available-institutions are aggressive about taking on new students when enrollment growth is funded. However, for the past several years, the growth has not been funded, and the mood may be changing. "The state has a history/philosophy of wide open access," notes one long-time observer of Utah higher education, but "the tough policy question is whether that can be continued," given fiscal constraints. On the other hand, there is the question of whether political support for higher education might be eroded if the commitment to access was reduced.
The commitment to low tuition, the state's second long-standing policy, is identified by many as a real source of pride for the higher education system. Like most Western states, Utah's philosophy is one of low tuition with relatively low commitment to financial aid. While there has not been much appetite for financial aid that redistributes dollars from some students to others, there has been a general feeling that higher education should be affordable for everyone, and families should not be penalized for having several children in college at the same time. With several years of tight budgets and higher than average tuition increases, Utah may have to rethink its state funding strategies if it is to maintain its traditional emphasis on affordability. A new funding strategy would certainly require a shift in mindset-especially if it more explicitly includes financial aid-but it is clear that the costs of higher education have risen in Utah and the state may need to make changes if it is to continue to emphasize access.
The general policy approach in Utah has been one that focuses on institutional innovations driven by larger state purposes. Enabling two of the two-year colleges to begin offering four-year degrees in targeted areas was a way to address growing demand through an institutional change. Bringing the applied technology colleges under the umbrella of higher education is another example of this kind of institutional focus. The redirection of enrollments towards two-year institutions was an attempt to shift enrollments among existing institutions. As one observer notes, these policies represent tactical responses to particular issues, in some cases motivated by political or regional interests.
The policy approach in Utah also demonstrates a constant tension between the Board of Regents and the Legislature over issues of institutional mission. The state-local tension becomes particularly evident when pressures build in the local communities. While the Legislature has asserted itself at times, in general it has left the regents to manage things operationally.
Even as Utah recovers from the recession of the new millennium, it may be time for the state to consider alternative strategies and policies to maintain the access and affordability that its population demands. It is likely that the state will not be able to resume fully funding growth, and many in Utah seem to think now is the time to consider alternatives. According to state-level projections, Utah can expect the demand for higher education to grow into 2015.54 This growth may be the mechanism that propels policymakers to consider funding alternatives that incorporate strategies such as financial aid and performance funding. Utah legislators adopted intent language in the 2004 session calling for a review and refinement of the funding formula, reducing emphasis on enrollment growth as the sole incentive for additional funding.
Exploring such strategies may help the state begin a dialogue about how to balance its performance across several categories, and how to address whether the statewide need for higher education is being met. The dialogue must go beyond the Board of Regents, who because of their institutional orientation may be unable to address the statewide priorities without collaboration of others from outside of higher education. A collaborative dialogue may help the state to proactively determine how best to respond to the higher education demands of its unique and growing population.