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State Policies to
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Low Tuition
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Page 13 of 25

  Low Tuition

A second long-standing practice in the state has been a real effort to keep tuition rates as low as possible. Even after several years of double-digit increases, tuition at the state's four-year institutions is still well below the average of similar institutions nationally. While still less expensive than the national average, Utah community colleges do not rank quite as low as their four-year counterparts.32 One president hypothesized that the higher than average two-year tuition is acceptable to the legislators and to the general public because two-year tuition remains below that at the four-year institutions within the state.

Most of the individuals we spoke with felt that tuition had historically been kept low as a general response to the demographics in Utah: Utah has the largest family size in the country and people often have multiple children in college at the same time. The effort to keep tuition low is explained as a response in part to the recognition that the state does not want to place too big a burden on families. (This ethic even pervades within the private sector, where BYU has one of the lowest tuitions of any major private university.) However, over the past three years, as the state budget has declined and lawmakers have fewer dollars to designate toward higher education, tuitions have begun to rise. Traditionally, the state provided about 70% of total revenues with 30% coming from tuition; today, this split is closer to 60% state to 40% tuition, and is close to a 50-50 split at one institution (Utah Valley).

While the across-the-board tuition increases have been relatively small (approximately 4.5% per year since 2000), the regents have for the past three years enacted what they call "second tier increases" specific to the individual institutions. Institutional presidents, after consultation with students, propose the second-tier increases to address campus-specific needs. These increases must be approved by the regents, but not by the Legislature, and are made in addition to the system-wide tuition increases. The relative increases vary widely by institution. In 2003-04, second tier tuition increases ranged from 6% at the College of Eastern Utah to 20.5% at Southern Utah University.

The second-tier increases, according to one member of the commissioner's staff, were designed as a "way for institutions to increase tuition more aggressively and not take a hit in the legislative process." While there has been some grumbling among legislators about the second-tier increases (perhaps because they leave legislators out of the loop entirely), there are some in the Legislature who feel that this practice takes pressure off them. "It's a user fee," says one legislator "and then I don't have to raise taxes." Campus officials, not surprisingly, like the two-tier tuition approach. "Second-tier increases allow us to use the tuition increase where it does the best job," argues one administrator. At Utah State University (USU), for example, the second-tier increase has focused on two areas: (1) faculty head count (particularly increasing the number of faculty in engineering courses and in the lower division "bottleneck" courses so that more sections can be offered to students); and (2) student advising, where the university is trying to improve its advising system to reduce the number of "false starts" that students make, thus getting them through the pipeline more quickly. A USU administrator credited these efforts with the improvements the university has realized in their six-year graduation rates.

Flexibility from second-tier tuition increases may soon become a thing of the past: In the 2004 legislative session, the Legislature adopted "intent language" that set limits on second-tier tuition increases, calling for those increases to be used to cover specific budget needs such as unfunded enrollment, operations and maintenance, and fuel and power increases.33 If continued in the next appropriations bill, this significantly changes the initial intent of the second-tier increase, removing much of the campus flexibility for which they were first adopted.

Those who expressed the most concern with the recent tuition increases suggested that the state might be drifting away from a low tuition/low aid policy to a high tuition/low aid policy. Utah has very little state funded need-based aid, and so there has been no increase in aid to correspond with tuition increases. While recent systemwide tuition increases included a .5% set-aside for financial aid, most say that this is such a small number that it will have very little impact. In the 2004 legislative session, the Legislature adopted "intent language" removing the proposed .5% set-aside for financial aid, reducing the overall "first-tier" increase from 4.5% to 3.0%. As one campus administrator puts it, the state takes a fairly "egalitarian" approach to tuition-make it low for everyone and don't ask some individuals to pay more in order to have some left over for financial aid. A real financial aid program would require a "cultural shift" says a campus president.

While some in Utah are concerned that there are individuals who are and will continue to be left out of higher education if tuition increases are not accompanied by financial aid increases for those most in need, others see higher education as a "private good" that should be funded by the individual who benefits. In a fall 2003 press release, then-Commissioner Cecelia Foxley expressed a "particular concern about the participation rates of low income Utahns, who are only half as likely to obtain a college education as the national average."34

We found many individuals in the state who believe that Utah needs to reconsider its long-term tuition philosophy. For generations the philosophy of low tuition has worked well in Utah; slower economic growth and greater demands on state money from other areas may make the continuation of this policy more difficult.

32 See Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2003-2004 Tuition and Fee Rates, (December 7, 2004). Tables 1, 5, and 9 show that Utah's flagship institution ranks 42nd in terms of tuition and fees; comprehensive universities rank 47th and community colleges rank 35th.

33 Intent language is drawn from Legislative Fiscal Analyst Web site, Recommendations for the Appropriations Subcommittee for Higher Education for the Year Ending June 30, 2005, (March 10, 2004).

34 Utah System of Higher Education, "Utah Reacts to 'Closing the College Participation Gap,'" press release, October 1, 2003.


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