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Regents to focus energies on ‘unfunded growth’ woes

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With the growing demand for college education and the funding to provide those services on a collision course, the Utah State Board of Regents wants to spend more time dealing with broad policy issues.

The board voted Friday to limit the number of "action item" sessions it holds to just 25 percent of its scheduled meetings. Three-fourths of its time will be dedicated to looking at deeper issues that appear on the verge of threatening the availability and quality of higher education in Utah. The board's five-member executive committee will deal with any institutional matters that require attention between action meetings, with the full board's ratification pending.

"These are tough times," board Chairman Charles Johnson said as he listed a number of concerns he thinks the board should be addressing.

Foremost is how to handle "unfunded growth" that the state's colleges and universities are experiencing at a time when state tax revenues are in a decline.

Growth of some 10 percent in student numbers since last fall has coincided with demands for state agencies — including higher education — to cut millions of dollars from their budgets to help cover a $200 million-plus shortfall in expected tax revenues for the current fiscal year.

While the money gets tighter and classrooms fuller, employers are demanding a better-educated work force and students are taking more time to get degrees — all interwoven factors that are challenging the system, Johnson said.

The question of enrollment caps must be dealt with "one way or another," Johnson said. Whether the regents should impose specific enrollment limits at the institutions or allow "de facto" capping through unavailability of classes, tuitions so high students can't afford them or higher admissions standards that would limit access for some students is one of the questions the regents should consider, he said.

Current funding structures encourage the institutions to "take all students" because their funding is tied to numbers, Johnson said. A better funding formula should be high on the list of policy issues the regents undertake, he said. "Our present funding formula is not the one we need."

Utah Valley State College President Kerry Romesburg argued that the schools are not "taking students to try to pad our budgets. We're not getting rich on students. We're trying to provide education opportunities for students."

UVSC would have fared better financially without the explosive growth it has experienced, he said.

Regent Marlon Snow said he welcomes an opportunity to "devote more time to to the specifics of higher education, not the generalities."

Institutional presidents also applauded the regents' shift in focus. "It's a good move," said Salt Lake Community College President H. Lynn Cundiff. "We need more strategic planning regarding higher education throughout the state." His institution hosted Friday's meeting.

The proposal to spend more time in laying a solid foundation for higher education was a joint decision between the regents and the office of Commissioner of Higher Education Cecelia Foxley. "It's absolutely the direction we need to take. We need to look more at big picture issues," she said.

E-mail: tvanleer@desnews.com