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UVU's record growth tests funding ability

OREM — Space is coveted on Utah Valley University's campus.

Halls have been converted to classrooms with temporary walls built on three sides. What used to be storage closets are now offices for faculty, and hallways are becoming so crowded during passing periods that one student described it as trying to get through an intersection with no stop signs.

"We are trying to implement every efficiency possible and are utilizing every nook and cranny of this campus," said UVU's spokesman Chris Taylor, who added that the college has the least amount of space per student in the state.

With a total head count of more than double what it used to be just 13 years ago, UVU is on its way to becoming the state's biggest university with 32,670 students taking classes from the university this fall, just one pupil shy of the University of Utah's total head count.

UVU's enrollment growth accounted for nearly half of the surge in Utah this year at 3,905 new students, according to statistics released by the state this month. Taylor said the university has been growing for the last 12 consecutive semesters. But administrators at the school said they can't keep this up for long.

"If we are going to continue to grow at this rate, we have no other option then to look to the state for a better investment," Taylor said.

Currently UVU is operating with the lowest per-pupil funding from the state at around 42 percent, Taylor said. Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg said most other state universities are funded at about 60 percent per pupil.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who is co-chairman of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the state will have to engage in a "fairly intense discussion" on the issue of funding UVU soon. Valentine has been pushing for the university to grow to meet demands of Utah Valley, now the second largest county in the state, for more than two decades. He said after Brigham Young University became more of an international university for the LDS Church, Utah County students needed a place to go. Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said 70 percent of Utah Valley college students now attend UVU.

Valentine is happy with the strides UVU has made, but he said if the college does not receive more money from the state in the future, there will have to be either an increase in tuition or new regulations on enrollment. Already the school had to enforce application deadline dates for the first time this fall, and it had many students decide not to attend the university after the classes they tried to get into did not have space for them.

"There are no easy answers," Valentine said.

But Sederburg and state representatives hope the economy picking up and the new focus on higher education by the governor will be the answer. Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said even if the economy doesn't pick up, the state can find places to slash just like they did when deciding to fund a new UVU science center and put off a road-building project.

Sederburg said he hopes the student ratio per student at UVU will rise over the next several years, adding that while UVU has been a great model of efficiency, it also has been a source of quality education.

"The state needs UVU to continue to grow and prosper," he said. "They have done a marvelous job of keeping doors opened and responding to the public demand of opportunity. It's remarkable that without state dollars the school has continued to grow and educate the public."

State Office of Education Committee Chairman Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said all other four-year universities should look at UVU as a model of efficiency.

UVU students have had the highest retention rate at the school than ever before, up nearly 12 percent, or 1,887 students, from last year, with junior and senior students accounting for the largest portion of that growth, at 16 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively. Some returning students are even passing up opportunities to go to other universities for further education at UVU.

Richard Portwood, UVU's student body president, said he came to UVU in 2008 with the intention of transferring to BYU, but when he was accepted to BYU a year later, he decided to turn it down because he said he could see what UVU was becoming, and he already was receiving a quality education there.

"I felt like I had the opportunity to affect change," Portwood said. "I see things that can be improved and the potential UVU has, and I want to be a part of that."

Taylor said to keep up with enrollment growth, the university is discussing a hybrid education model where some classes will be taught in the classroom half the time and then be taught through technology for the other half.

The university also is considering using some space at Thanksgiving Point to hold more classes, and a new science center is under way that will add another 160,000 square feet, including 27 labs, 12 state-of-the-art classrooms and a 400-seat auditorium in February 2012.

UVU President Matthew Holland attributes the growth amid budget challenges to the "wonderful faculty, staff and administrators."

"It's important to understand that UVU's mission is to be a point of access to higher education," Holland said. "Given that unique mission and the demographic trends in this state, we will continue to grow as we provide opportunities to students who want the benefit of an excellent university education."