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Utah higher education leaders warn against 7 percent budget cut

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SALT LAKE CITY — Higher education officials warned Wednesday that continued budget cuts for Utah's colleges would have serious negative consequences.

Gov. Gary Herbert held higher education funding steady in his budget proposal. But the Legislature, looking to offset Medicaid costs and even out a "structural imbalance" of more than $300 million, is considering a 7 percent cut that would pull more than $47 million from the state's colleges and universities.

At a budget meeting, higher education Commissioner Bill Sederburg said the reductions would force schools to eliminate nearly 2,600 courses and lay off 640 employees, including 139 professors and 206 adjuncts.

Across the state, he said, the 12 percent budget cuts of the past two years — coinciding with booming enrollment — are already causing large classes, an increased reliance on adjunct instructors, admission caps at open-enrollment colleges and tuition hikes. Finding more reductions will not be easy.

"The low-hanging fruit has already been harvested," Sederburg said. "We're really talking about eliminating options for your constituents at a time that they are demanding more and more opportunities."

He noted that per-student funding has returned to where it was 10 years ago, around $5,000, while tuition has doubled.

Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland said at his school, which picked up half of the state's new students in the past year, two-thirds can't enroll in classes when they want and one-third can't get in courses in their own majors.

However, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said the "economic realities of the state" would require further cuts. "Your soup is already thin and it's getting thinner," he said.

Urquhart said the state's higher education institutions have been "horribly inefficient" in some areas, noting what he called a large amount of "stranded capital" spent on students who do not finish college. Some of the fast-growing open-enrollment schools should consider adopting admissions standards to reduce the number of students who enroll without a realistic chance of graduating.

In his district, Dixie State College may have to eliminate entire departments or raise tuition 20 percent, according to the school's president, Stephen Nadauld.

Urquhart suggested that Dixie and other schools could drop programs that can be offered more efficiently at one of the eight campuses of the Utah College of Applied Technology, which is also slated for a 7 percent cut.

Nadauld argued that although state spending on higher education as a percentage of the budget has steadily declined — from 21 percent to 14 percent since 1975 — it should be seen as an investment, since college graduates pay more taxes and draw less from social services.

The state fiscal analyst presented a list of potential higher education cuts, focused mostly on eliminating tuition subsidies for excess credit hours — any hours beyond 20 percent more than required for graduation — and on asking faculty to increase their teaching load by 10 percent.

Sederburg warned of the "political consequences" of another possibility the analyst listed: slashing 26 Regents Scholarships for a savings of $262,400, or 10 percent of the program. Proposed reductions to New Century Scholarships provoked a firestorm of opposition in 2009.

e-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com

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