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Higher ed performance funding poses 'tough task' for lawmakers

Jordan Allred, Deseret News Archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Higher education leaders made their priorities clear as lawmakers began the process last week of determining the best way to fund Utah's eight public colleges and universities.

Looking forward, lawmakers are seeking to understand how this year's base budget bill will impact individual students: Will it contribute to the constant rise of tuition? Will it pay for degrees that don't pay off for students? Is open enrollment the best policy for all students?

Last year, higher education appropriations focused largely on equitable baseline funding for each institution. Now, state leaders are delving into the task of tieing a greater portion of state dollars to each institution's performance in metrics such as completion, access, affordability and student retention.

"I think that we're here primarily to do one thing — we're here to figure out performance funding and what that means now that we have an equitable base and what does it mean to have our institutions go out and improve what they're doing and be funded based on their performance," said Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, Senate chairman of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

"This will be the tough task of the session."

Rising costs

The Utah Board of Regents is asking the Legislature for $5 million in performance-based funds to be split equally among Utah's eight institutions if they comply with access and student affordability objectives, among others.

What has most lawmakers worried is a constant rise in the cost to students. Average annual tuition rates this year are more than triple what they were in 2000, according to a legislative report. It's a trend that doesn't appear to be slowing down in the near future.

"That, to me, just seems shocking," said the committee's House vice chairman, Rep. Jon Stanard, R-St. George.

So why does tuition go up year after year?

Dixie State University and Utah Valley University have both seen tuition increases of well over 300 percent in the past 15 years, though they aren't the only ones. Much of the incrase is due to the costly transition from being two-year colleges to four-year universities near the end of the 1990s, according to David Buhler, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education.

Institutions in the state are also increasing compensation for instructors in order to retain high-quality faculty. Buhler said the system has historically kept an agreement with the Legislature in funding salary raises, where the state provides 75 percent of the funds and the other 25 percent is covered by tuition.

Cuts in the state budget have had a direct impact on tuition rates. But an increase in state funding last year has helped in "turning the corner" and getting closer to where students aren't bearing the majority of the cost, Buhler said.

"That state funding, the amount that you're able to put into the system, definitely impacts what we need to charge," Buhler said to members of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said he hopes the Legislature and higher education leaders will be able to mitigate tuition spikes and find the "sweet spot" where students can know better how much they can expect to pay each year.

"When I see the state's support going down precipitously and I see some cuts in our institutions (followed by) this rather dramatic increase in tuition, I worry that that's going to become the norm, and the state gets comfortable in recognizing that we can just kind of tax our students that way," Dabakis said. "My hope would be we will continue to keep tuition as low as we possibly can."

This year, the Utah Board of Regents requested about $78 million from the Legislature, not counting capital facilities. If the state meets the board's funding request, and it is a "big if," next year's tuition would go up by about 2.5 percent, the lowest increase in almost 20 years, Buhler said.

"I feel like this is really a partnership between the Legislature and higher education in that if you do as much as you can, we'll do as much as we can to be efficient and to help more students succeed and keep the costs as low as possible," he said.

Fostering completion

Performance funds would also be tied at each institution to the percent of full-time freshmen graduating within 150 percent of the normal time for their degree, a task that fewer than half of today's college students in Utah accomplish.

Lawmakers this week are taking a closer look at what the early indicators are for student failure in college and how they will coincide with rapid enrollment growth in the coming years. By the year 2022, Utah's institutions are expected to gain an additional 40,000 students, according to Buhler.

"I'd like to tee up probably the very unpopular question of are we growing with students who have a chance of completing," Urquhart said. "So if part of this growth is fueled by students who have very limited prospects of completing, then it raises the question of are we just taking their time and money? Are they just revenue to the system?"

Much of a student's chance of graduating depends on how they perform prior to their freshman year. Last year, the Utah System of Higher Education published a recommendation that students take a math class each year they're in high school.

This is echoed by a resolution now under consideration by the Legislature asking the Utah State Board of Education to require high schoolers to take math each year. Lawmakers hope the requirement would cut down on the number of students having to take remedial math in college.

As part of their performance funding, colleges and universities will also select one or two institution-specific metrics, among them, student retention. As part of this, Urquhart said students who are accepted to an institution should be given the resources to overcome academic challenges.

"Once they walk through our doors, we are responsible," he said. "So at that point, I don't think it's fair for us to point back at public education. So if we are going to accept them, then what do we need to do knowing that they're going to struggle to give them the best opportunity to succeed?"

Part of the performance funding would also be geared toward improving access for students through initiatives such as course flexibility and resources for part-time students.

For many students, enrolling part time is the only option compatible with having to hold down a job. Weber State University's six-year graduation rate is close to the state average of 38 percent. But 75 percent of students who entered in 2002 have received their bachelor's degree, according to WSU President Charles Wight.

"There are a few people who are still at Weber State slugging it out, still earning their degrees after 14 years," Wight said.

The dividing line between success and failure lies in how students perform during their first semester. Students who earn a GPA of 2.0 or less have a "very small chance" of completing a four-year degree, he said.

Besides the University of Utah, institutions in the state have a relatively low or nonexistent threshold for acceptance. But Urquhart said raising the bar could be beneficial for students who aren't ready for college academically, saving them time and money otherwise spent on what most likely would be an unfinished degree.

"If this causes us to rethink our completely open admission, I'm willing to have that discussion," Urquhart said. "I don't know that we're doing them a huge favor by saying, 'Come to college. We'll take everyone.' Maybe that should be, 'Come to college under the following conditions where you really might have a chance of succeeding, and we will provide you with added services.'"

Degrees to nowhere

While the number of degrees and certificates awarded could also play a part in performance funding, lawmakers are calling on institutions to better inform students about the career opportunities that come with each program. This might also include eliminating programs that show the least promise for students.

"I get people contacting me in tears, both parents and students, who say, 'We didn't know that I wouldn't be able to pay off my student loans with the degree I got. Nobody told me,'" said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

Stephenson also emphasized the importance of having qualified academic advisers who can give helpful guidance to students, even if that advice is to change to another program or another institution altogether.

Buhler agreed that advisers should help students be well informed on the options when considering changing majors.

"Our interest needs to be what will help the student most," Buhler said.

But having adequate funding for advising remains a challenge, especially at Salt Lake Community College, where the ratio of advisers to students is about 1,200 to 1, according to SLCC President Deneece Huftalin.

Even though the resources are there, many students make little or no effort to meet with an adviser, Huftalin said.

"The reality is many of our students never walk into our advising office," she said. "They self-advise, and sometimes they do that well, but most of the time they don't do that well."

College leaders are encouraging faculty members to offer guidance to students when they see them in class. The college also offers an online resource called Career Coach, where students can see current job openings, labor market demographics and expected earnings for careers in their current major.

"We have to leverage technology and leverage our faculty, who see students all the time, and give them the tools they need to help students not in program articulation, but advising toward a career and the right classes to take," Huftalin said.

Buhler said other performance metrics could also include average wages earned by career and technical education graduates as well as transfer rates to other institutions.

Members of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee will continue discussing the proposed performance funding model on Tuesday and throughout the legislative session.

"This model, we think, is rigorous, real and transparent," Buhler said. "It's a thing that's challenging for institutions. I believe that if it's adopted by the Legislature and funded that it will give the presidents some significant new tools to help improve excellence at their institution."

White said performance-based funds will be an impetus for continuous improvement in higher education, though it's a challenge when not all metrics are directly within the control of institution leaders.

"I think you'll be surprised how uncomfortable some of the presidents are, that we're just way out on the ledge here," Wight told committee members. "I think ultimately, it's going to be a good thing, but it's going to be uncomfortable for a while."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen