We've taken on more and more with less and less. It's come on the backs of our employees. We're starting to lose good people. – Matthew Holland, president of Utah Valley University

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah higher education leaders are asking state lawmakers to provide more than $337 million to help colleges and universities fulfill system-wide goals and also meet the needs of individual colleges and universities across the state.

Those goals range from building proposals to reducing the number of bottleneck courses — those courses students need to graduate but can't seem to get in a timely fashion. And although Gov. Gary Herbert's budget proposal fell short of matching the request by almost $227 million, mostly from building requests, educators are hopeful the Legislature will provide the dollars they say they need to accommodate projected rising enrollment and retain quality faculty and support staff.

"This is money that I think is critical for us to support the growth that we're going to be facing in the years ahead," said Matthew Holland, president of Utah Valley University. He said UVU is expected to see as many as 8,000 additional students by the end of the decade, atop its 30,000-plus student body.

Institution leaders are backing a proposal from the Utah System of Higher Education, which identifies key funding needs as well as the needs and desires of each college or university.

Culture of meritocracy

The educators are proposing more than $28 million for faculty compensation, offering 3 percent salary raises based on performance and 5 percent health benefit increases. In this case, Herbert's proposal exceeded the request by more than $853,000 in ongoing funds, which would be dispersed on an individual basis by the leaders of each institution.

The boost in wages would help the colleges and universities retain quality faculty while adopting a meritocracy model of compensation amid rapid growth, according to Holland.

"We've taken on more and more with less and less. It's come on the backs of our employees. We're starting to lose good people," he said. "We really need some help with compensation, and the state hasn't done much for their employees in general, even less for higher education, and we think it's time to address that."

Last year, open enrollment institutions received a $50 million boon in equity funding, which Holland said was helpful in raising instructor salaries that were "so in the basement." Since then, UVU has neared completion of its goal to bring salaries up.

"We’ve been at work trying to get most of our employees to 90 percent of the median," Holland said. "So we have these averages for all segments of the institution and the aim was to get us basically to market median as a kind of floor, saying, if we could get everyone to a floor, then we could start to think about an effective meritocratic system."

Even still, employee turnover is rising while the university strives to keep pace with competing employers in the area.

"We're really hemorrhaging in places like IT, where we just find it hard to compete with all these companies in Utah County who are sucking up all the talent at a time when we're trying to move in a direction more heavily connected with technology," Holland said. "That's a big issue alone, but it's just one element."

In addition to compensation incentives for instructors, the governor upheld a performance-based funding request for institutions of $5 million, more than triple what lawmakers allocated in one-time pilot appropriations in each of the past two legislative sessions.

The funds would be split among Utah's eight public higher education institutions according to how well they fulfill individual performance metrics, such as retention, completion, general education requirements and graduate programs.

David Pershing, president of the University of Utah, said performance funds would be used to keep tuition rates low and ensure that more students graduate on time.

But there's a danger, he says, in moving toward an education funding system based entirely on performance metrics. Such a move is not currently on the table, but it's one that institution leaders are wary of in light of growing national interest in performance-based funding models.

"There's some tendency to just think about performance funding. There's some danger of that," Pershing said. "I'm totally supportive of having it, but we don't want to put all our eggs in that one basket."

Deneece Huftalin, who was inaugurated earlier this month as Salt Lake Community College's eighth president, said performance funding can be a useful tool as an incentive for institutions to meet their goals, but its application is limited.

"It incentivizes you in some way because it allows you to be creative and really work toward improving and moving the needle," Huftalin said. "I worry that if the idea is eventually to move the entire budget allocation to performance-based, I think there are a lot of nuances that get lost, especially in a system where you have very distinct institutions."

'A quality experience'

Utah's colleges and universities are preparing for both short-term and long-term enrollment growth. Classroom head counts are expected to increase this year with the return of missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose numbers surged after the church lowered the age requirement for service.

Utah's K-12 student population also increased last year by almost 10,000 children, many of whom will go on to attend a college or university in the state.

To accommodate current numbers and future growth, the Utah System of Higher Education requested $30 million from the Legislature to put toward mission-based funding. That would be divided evenly between student support services, referred to as student participation, and distinctive mission objectives.

Like other institutions, Salt Lake Community College leaders hope to designate the student participation money toward better student support at the college's multiple campuses, improving IT infrastructure, providing intervention for students struggling academically, and facilities maintenance, Huftalin said.

"They're really designed to be ongoing (funds) that, given the growth of the students, how do we make sure students have a quality experience?" she said.

Distinctive mission funds would be unique to each campus. At the University of Utah, they would help expand IT networks and online classes. At Utah Valley University, they would be used to bridge the gap between creative and technical training programs. At Salt Lake Community College, they would facilitate the transition for applied technology classes toward competency-based education, allowing students with prior training to move more quickly toward completion.

Herbert's budget proposal allocates $10 million for distinctive mission funding and doesn't include student participation.

But in order for distinctive mission programs to fully succeed, Huftalin said the state budget should include student participation, which she says is a "commitment" to the state goal to have 66 percent of adults with a college degree or certification by the year 2020.

"When you look at the mission-based funding, the student participation and the distinctive mission, in my mind, they have to go together," she said. "It's a commitment to say, 'Yes, we need to continue to invest in higher ed,' which can strengthen its services and resources so that students can be successful."

The U. and USU, Utah's two research institutions, are also asking the state for a one-time appropriation of $10 million to advance graduate research programs, though the appropriation was not included in Herbert's proposal.

Neil Abercrombie, director of government relations at USU, said investment in institution research would help alleviate the demand for highly trained workers in science, technology, engineering and math fields, as well as provide data for air quality, transportation and other issues.

Brick and mortar

Most of the discrepancy between the Utah System of Higher Education's funding request and the governor's budget proposal lies in state-funded capital facilities. The higher education officials requested a total of $259 million to support the construction of nine buildings at various campuses. Herbert's proposal, however, allots about $63 million for capital funding.

The three buildings that made the governor's list are the Crocker Science Center and the Huntsman Cancer Institute, both at the U., and a new science building at Snow College.

This is the third year the U. has asked for state dollars to build its Crocker Science Center, a $55 million renovation project adding biology and chemistry labs in the building that used to house the Utah Museum of Natural History.

"Frankly, the donor is getting weary," Pershing said. "If we don't get it done this year, we'll be in trouble."

Two-thirds of the buildings requested would in some fashion facilitate science, technology, engineering and math instruction, research and training, which businesses leaders in Utah say is in short supply. It's a trend that makes proposals like UVU's Performing Arts Building stand out.

UVU is the only university in the state without a performing arts center, even though the school's theater, ballroom dance and choral students have won prestigious national competitions in recent years.

"These are some tremendous programs. We just don't have any place to showcase them on our campus," Holland said. "We've become an all-Steinway school. And the only place we have to put those Steinways is next to the auto body shop."

Given Utah's growing emphasis on STEM education, the $36 million project would likely rely heavily on private donations, Holland said. But he hopes lawmakers will see the building as a different kind of laboratory for students.

"We think that if we show that the community is saying, 'We want this badly enough, even as we want STEM education training, that we're willing to put money into it,' that the Legislature can meet us half way or more to get it done," he said.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen