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Regents in a bind on tuition

They seek ways to make an increase easier to swallow

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Here's the dilemma for the Board of Regents:

Money for higher education is tight. It's getting harder to hire good faculty and keep academic programs afloat. With their comparatively low tuition, Utah colleges and universities are currently a bargain when compared to similar schools in the West.

But it's always politically unpopular to raise tuition — especially by the 10 percent or even more that a few college presidents are recommending.

At a meeting Tuesday of the Utah System of Higher Education's Task Force on Tuition and Aid, regents discussed some options for making new tuition hikes easier to swallow.

"They're definitely not talking about percentages or anything like that yet," said Higher Education Commissioner Cecelia Foxley.

What they're considering is a base tuition increase at all state colleges and universities, followed by a "case by case" increase on top of that, based on the needs of individual schools.

"Institutions could also look at comparable (schools) and where their tuitions are in relationship to those," Foxley said.

It would make tuition more responsive to market conditions, said board chairman Charlie Johnson.

"And what we decided (Tuesday) was to apply the idea to nonresidential tuition rates as well as residential ones," Johnson said.

Foxley believes state lawmakers will be receptive to the idea of variable tuition rates, because two years ago they approved a similar proposal for graduate schools.

"They still have to come before the Board (of Regents) and be given permission to (raise tuition), but the Legislature agreed those additional increases could be retained by the institution and the program," Foxley said.

Regent Pamela Atkinson said she thinks the University of Utah and Utah State University, the state's two research institutions, would be the most likely to raise tuition the most.

Total resident undergraduate tuition and fees for 12 semester hours is around $1,200 at both institutions.

Atkinson asked college and university representatives Tuesday to compile their spending priorities for a possible 10 percent increase in tuition.

"I'm not asking for anything the presidents don't already do for budgeting purposes, or that the students wouldn't ask. They like to know where the money is going," she said.

Regents also discussed shoring up the uniformity of student residency status.

The task force will meet once more before the next meeting of the full Board of Regents on Sept. 15.

They'll discuss increasing state, need-based financial aid as another way to soften the effects of a tuition hike on lower-income students.

E-MAIL: mtitze@desnews.com