Utah's college students made their feelings known last week. They don't want a tuition increase — at least, they don't want a large one.
But while it's good to see students becoming involved in a cause, the state Board of Regents shouldn't make last week's rally into an event that decides this issue. Students aren't responsible for making ends meet in the state's higher education system. The regents are, and they have to deal with the skyrocketing cost of lab equipment, library materials, maintaining facilities and meeting federal mandates that require them to make things accessible to people with disabilities, among other things. They already have proposed a $77 million increase for next year based on an estimate that costs will rise by 4 percent, and they want an additional $26 million for one-time projects.
The quality of Utah's higher education cannot be allowed to suffer. That, in the long run, would hurt Utah's students more than a tuition increase.
On the other hand, the regents cannot ignore the need for an accessible system. Many students come from families with limited means. Higher education at a public facility should not be so expensive as to automatically disqualify a large segment of the population. According to a nonprofit group, The College Board, which administers SAT tests, a growing portion of students nationwide is relying on loans to finance their tuition and book expenses. Of $68 billion given in financial aid last year, 59 percent of it was in the form of loans.
These are national figures. Regents have to determine the situation in Utah. Ultimately, they also must rely on state lawmakers, who make the final decisions regarding overall funding for higher education.
Again, it is too easy for outsiders — those without the responsibility to look at the big picture — simply to say the state ought to provide more money. Lawmakers must consider higher education along with all of the state's other needs, including public education and transportation, and they must weigh these against the tax burden already placed on the people who live in this state.
Utah has a long tradition of placing an emphasis on education. As a new century dawns, Americans everywhere are attending colleges in record numbers, and the state must keep pace with that demand. In the long run, this pull toward education will pay huge dividends for society at-large.
This year, a few college presidents made the task a little more difficult by talking about the need for tuition hikes of 10 percent or more. That won't happen, nor should it. But a more modest increase may be in order.
Utah's students have made their feelings known. Ultimately, their needs must come first. But their needs should not be viewed solely through the limited lens of tuition.