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Colleges will grow; Web factor is puzzler

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CEDAR CITY — Figures released by the Board of Regents show enrollment at Utah's nine public colleges and universities will continue to grow for the next 20 years.

What regents could not account for, by their own admittance, was how fast enrollment in electronic courses would increase between now and 2020.

The question is significant, since enrollment projections are used primarily for assessing building needs within the Utah System of Higher Education. And if more students earn credits on the Web instead of in the classroom, higher education dollars might be better spent on technology than on bricks and mortar.

"It seems to me that technology is changing the dynamics within the system," said regent David Grant at the board's monthly meeting held Thursday and Friday on the campus of Southern Utah University. "It's almost like we'll need two sets of books now, one for building estimates, and one for operating expenses . . . driven by students who may not need classrooms, but might need infrastructure in the technological arena."

Weber State University President Paul Thompson said almost all of the growth at his institution in the past few years "has been on-line."

"And we really haven't advertised it at all," he said. "It's very hard for us to predict what will happen next."

Currently, about 5 percent of WSU students enroll in on-line courses. But Thompson said they do not do so exclusively.

"Most are taking courses on-line that they couldn't get into. But they're taking other courses in traditional classrooms, too," he said.

Regent Aileen Clyde said the question of Internet enrollment comes up "again and again" in discussions among higher education officials.

"None of us is going to ignore this matter, because it is profoundly important," she said. "But projecting for it is really beyond me."


E-MAIL: mtitze@desnews.com