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My view: Higher education is efficient, innovative and collaborative

Utah Valley University students study in the hall of flags  on campus in Orem  Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011.
Utah Valley University students study in the hall of flags on campus in Orem Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In response to the recent editorial in the Deseret News, Utahns can be pleased that our eight public colleges and universities are the envy of the nation when it comes to scalable collaboration, innovation and efficiency.

Part of what makes Utah great is that we have all public higher-ed institutions working together to ensure Utahns have the best chance to succeed. And we do so efficiently: In 1969, when the Utah System of Higher Education was founded, there were nine institutions serving fewer than 50,000 students. Nearly 50 years later, there are eight institutions serving 175,000 students.

Another example is concurrent enrollment, which enables one-third of all high school juniors and seniors in Utah to take college classes, saving them tens of millions of dollars in tuition costs every year. These students earn college credit that easily transfers among all of our public institutions. In fact, over 20 percent of Utah college students ultimately transfer between institutions, made possible by Utah’s seamless transfer of credit and common course numbering for general education courses.

Speaking of innovation, 1 in 4 students enroll in an online course provided by Utah’s public colleges and universities, where hundreds of courses and 84 full programs are available entirely online. Institutions are regularly updating their offerings to meet student and market needs. For instance, 97 new certificate and degree programs were added in 2016, and over 40 programs were discontinued or consolidated.

Higher ed is always working to find ways to remain nimble, competitive and effective for students. Some examples of this include Salt Lake Community College’s Open Educational Resources Initiative, which has saved students over $3 million in textbooks and class materials since its inception three years ago; the University of Utah’s Lassonde Institute, which provides hands-on learning opportunities for thousands of students and student entrepreneurs, and the low-cost math refresher summer courses at Utah Valley University, which help students beef up their math skills before the fall semester. More broadly, public colleges and universities in Utah brought in over $680 million in outside research and grant funds last year, many of which fund exciting initiatives and research projects that contribute to the vibrancy of our state.

Higher ed in Utah does all of this, and much more, even though total revenues per student are the 45th-lowest in the country. Despite this, we are able to maintain among the lowest tuition and fees in the U.S. and produce graduates at a high rate. Taken collectively, public higher ed in Utah is among the most efficient in the nation.

Efficiency can also be measured by how many resources are devoted to operations and administration. Utah public colleges and universities actually have less than half the number of employees per 100 students than the national average: 13 in Utah vs. 31 nationally. And there are 23 percent fewer executive positions at these institutions today than there were 30 years ago.

Utah students have many choices when it comes to higher education — in-state, out of state, private, public, online and traditional — yet 8 out of 10 Utah high school graduates who go on to college attend one of our public colleges and universities. We embrace and encourage innovation to ensure students receive the quality education they have come to expect from Utah’s public higher-ed institutions.

David L. Buhler is commissioner of higher education in Utah.