If Utah higher education officials don't set high accountability standards for the state's nine colleges and universities, lawmakers will.

Meeting earlier this week, key legislators acknowledged that the Utah Board of Regents is making headway in establishing performance measures. But lawmakers emphasized more is expected."If it (the effort) doesn't continue to grow, the Legislature will respond," said Sen. Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful.

Representatives of the state's higher education system gave the Legislature's Joint Executive Appropriations Committee a progress report Tuesday on its work to develop performance indicators that eventually will be tied to the higher education budget.

Accountability is part of an extensive master planning effort now under way by the Utah State Board of Regents. Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Cecelia Foxley said she believes the planning process will satisfy lawmakers' and faculty members' concerns.

The Utah State Board of Regents has identified four indicators members believe can improve the system and can be tied to funding:

- Instructional quality and student learning.

- Graduation efficiency.

- Transfer efficiency.

- Faculty workload.

However, lawmakers and regents differ on how to extend incentives to institutions.

System representatives contend that a reward system should be implemented slowly and money for incentives should be appropriated from new money.

Sen. LeRay McAllister, R-Orem, suggested funding incentives from the same across-the-board increase granted to all state agencies. If the Legislature approved a 3 percent budget increase, 1 percent would be set aside "for merit, as you wish."

"If it's a reallocation of money we'd receive anyway, it loses that incentive side of it," said regents chairman Charlie Johnson.

"Rather than be punitive about it, let it be a small rewards system."

The regents have reviewed the national teaching workload standard for Utah's schools. Many differences exist among the state's nine colleges and universities. That necessitates specific indicators for each school.

A written report presented to lawmakers notes "comparisons with peers, comparisons against a standard and comparisons against an institution's own past performance are all viable methods of comparison."

There's another fly in the ointment, however. Beginning this fall, each of the state's colleges will observe a semester system. Data collected under the quarter system may not directly apply to semesters, said regent David Jordan.

"We're not sure we'd be looking at apples to apples," said Jordan.

The regents also are considering administering a general education test at the end of a student's first two years in school to ascertain the effectiveness of general education instruction.

The test results could be compared against the student's college admission tests as a measure of the "comparable value" added by each institution's general education program.

One sticking point with that proposal is community colleges do not require admissions exams. In those cases, there would be no baseline data from which to compare, said Foxley.

Another consideration is cost. Such tests would cost about $30 each. For the initial go-round, higher education officials are contemplating a pilot program rather than sampling a certain percentage of students in the system.

Jordan assured lawmakers that the regents are still hard at work developing accountability measures and promised additional reports.

"We're not done. This still a work in progress. We're still after it," he said.

Foxley told reporters even without financial incentives, the system will closely monitor performance measures it develops because "it's good management."