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Colleges, universities see enrollment rise again

It's rare to find an empty seat at any one of Utah's colleges or universities, especially with the recession pushing more people back to school. And it's only going to get more difficult.

A report released Thursday said that statewide enrollment for spring semester has grown by more than 13,000 students, taxing campuses that are already dealing with dwindling budgets.

The growth couldn't come at a much more difficult time for college administrators, who have endured 18 months of budget cuts, along with unprecedented enrollment growth every semester for the past few years. The combination has stretched resources thin, making it difficult for schools to expand to meet the needs of students. At one college, administrators have contracted with a local motel to provide housing. At another, students have resorted to fundraisers like haircuts to raise money for needed buildings.

"We are worried about maintaining an affordable quality education in such challenging circumstances," said Utah's Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg. He said he's not sure how much more institutions can take.

So far, none of the nine public colleges and universities in the state have declared caps on enrollment, primarily because more students means more tuition dollars coming to campus. Even the College of Eastern Utah, which has struggled in the past to recruit students, has started to see a surge in enrollment, with an increase of 345 students this year.

"It's very beneficial," CEU interim president Mike King said Thursday. "It helps justify our institution, it shows we're growing and it shows we're viable. It's a testament to the good programs going on and that we're meeting the needs of the region."

Since 2007, CEU's San Juan campus in Blanding has grown from 239 students to 398 – a 67 percent increase. Its dormitories are full, and officials have recently contracted with a local motel to house students. But Guy Denton, vice provost for the campus, said there is still room for more.

But there are some facets of the system that are bursting at the seams.

Utah Valley University, which grew by 3,108 students from fall to spring semester, already had the smallest amount of square feet per student in the state. The school has requested a new science building, which President Matthew Holland says is necessary to alleviate some of the concern for space.

"At a time when we're all in a pinch, we need to invest in the things that can help grow us out of our economic problems as a state," he said.

Dixie State College increased enrollment by more than 27 percent, adding more than 1,600 students, the third-highest overall gain in the entire USHE system, behind only Salt Lake Community College and UVU.

"We certainly recognize that we are an open-access institution and we are fulfilling our mission to enroll all these students that are presenting themselves at our doors," Dixie President Stephen D. Nadauld said. "We're pleased, too, that we're able to fulfill that mission and hope that we can continue to do so despite the budget cuts, but our ability to respond is going to be dramatically hindered if we do not get some more resources from the state to help us."

The schools were hit with a 17 percent cut last year, along with an increase of 9,548 students. Although 8.5 percent of the lost money came back in the form of federal stimulus funds, that money is set to expire in July. The Legislature is currently considering additional cuts to higher education, but those numbers have yet to be finalized.

"Higher education is the lifeblood to our state," Sederburg said. "Our campuses provide a valuable opportunity for those impacted by today's tough economic climate, our presidents are committed to maintaining the needed access to our institutions despite the circumstances."