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Jay Evensen: Without more control over tuition costs, Utah schools are adding to a heap of social problems

FILE- In this May 17, 2018, file photo, new graduates line up before the start of the Bergen Community College commencement at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Obtaining a college degree has increasingly coincided with ever-higher student debt loa
In this May 17, 2018, file photo, new graduates line up before the start of the Bergen Community College commencement at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Obtaining a college degree has increasingly coincided with ever-higher student debt loads. Since 2004, total student debt has climbed more than 540 percent to $1.4 trillion, according to the New York Federal Reserve.
Seth Wenig

SALT LAKE CITY — Audits seldom harbor literary gems or pearls of wisdom, but when it comes to cutting to the heart of a matter, you could do worse than this sentence, buried on Page 17 of a legislative auditor general’s report on the performance of the Utah State Board of Regents, which governs higher education in Utah:

“Comparatively low tuition does not absolve the board of regents of its oversight responsibilities.”

It ain’t Shakespeare, but it sounds like poetic justice.

While auditors conducted their study, which was made public earlier this week, people associated with the board of regents repeatedly assured them that “Utah has some of the lowest tuition in the country,” the report said.

That is most likely true, and irrelevant.

The University of Utah’s tuition website cites studies published by the Economist and the Brookings Institution showing its high national rankings for value, something generally measured by how well graduates are doing in relation to the cost of their education.

But then, this is like saying the mountains in Utah are low compared to those in Washington state or Japan. To the average person, they all present challenging climbs, just as the average person struggles to mount the costs of obtaining a college degree.

At the University of Utah, tuition and fees this year are estimated at $8,382 for residents of the state, and $26,298 for nonresidents. Add in the cost of housing and the totals jump to $18,696 and $36,612, respectively.

For a student with limited work experience, or even for his or her parents, that can look, for lack of a better word, daunting.

Daunting doesn’t equal impossible, of course, especially with student loans readily available. But loans provide only temporary relief from a real problem, while adding many more problems along the way.

While you’re worrying over federal budget deficits, the national debt and consumer credit debt (and if you’re not worrying about this, you should be), you may add this to the list:

Americans owe a combined $1.5 trillion in student loans, and the number is growing.

A recent report published by two divergent groups, the Association of Young Americans and AARP, found that this debt affects every generation from young to old. Because of it, people are waiting to buy homes, putting off health care needs and having to tell family members in need that they really can’t help right now. They also are waiting to save for retirement, a ticking time bomb sure to overburden social institutions eventually.

The website added to this list delays in marriage and childbearing. Some students are choosing two-year institutions as affordable steppingstones because they can’t quite bear the costs of a university, and some low-income families may see college as simply out of reach.

That last one is particularly important, considering a bachelor’s degree is becoming a basic requirement for a life of decent earnings.

Against this backdrop, it isn’t enough merely to offer tuition that is less than that of some other institutions. That seemed to be one of the points of the audit, which was highly critical of how the board of regents arrives at its decisions about tuition hikes.

In short, it’s unclear how those decisions are made.

The Council of Presidents, whose members are the presidents of Utah's public colleges and universities, comes up with recommendations for annual spending increases to cover inflation and compensation, which are forwarded to the board of regents for approval. But the council doesn’t take minutes of its meetings. The regents don’t even attend. Few people seem to ask many questions before approving the increases, which are supposed to be covered 75 percent by legislative appropriations and 25 percent by tuition.

The resulting tuition increases have been applied evenly to all institutions without regard to the needs of individual schools, the audit said. As a result of this complicated system, tuition has risen a collective $131.7 million over the last five years, “almost three times what was needed to meet the legislative compensation match.”

I’m not going to pretend it’s not expensive to run a university. If the costs aren’t covered by tuition, they will be covered by other things, such as the involuntary contributions of taxpayers.

Nor will I pretend these institutions aren’t important to the state, its economy and its people.

But we shouldn’t downplay the need for careful, data-driven and fully transparent decision-making, either.

Given what it costs these days to buy something essential to a prosperous life, Utahns deserve that much.