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Cox proposes tuition freeze for state-supported colleges, universities

Plan would provide more state funding for compensation but require schools to cut costs to cover their share

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The University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City.

The University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox wants a tuition freeze and more state funding to help offset the impacts on the budgets of public degree-granting colleges and universities.

The governor, who announced his budget recommendations Friday in advance of the 2023 general session of the Utah Legislature, said increases in tuition and fees are outpacing inflation and median household incomes.

Legislative appropriations typically cover 75% of the compensation increases extended to employees at state colleges and universities, leaving the system of higher education to fund the remaining 25%, primarily through tuition increases.

With that option off the table, Cox further proposed that the Utah Legislature appropriate half of the 25% borne by colleges and universities, funding 87.5% of the cost, and “and then the institutions would be responsible for cutting costs to figure out that other 12%,” Cox said.

While the governor can establish expectations with his recommendations, funding decisions are the purview of state lawmakers.

Cox, during a meeting with the Deseret News, said “there is a growing agreement on that amongst the Board of Higher Education that they’re going to hold fast” to his recommendation of a tuition freeze.

Ordinarily, the governor-appointed higher education board, overseers of Utah’s public colleges and universities, approves tuition rates after the Utah Legislature has set the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Last spring, the board approved tuition increases for most of the state’s degree-granting universities that averaged 3.41% systemwide. Southern Utah University requested no tuition increase for the fourth consecutive year but it imposed the highest student fee hike among all state institutions.

Tuitions assessed by Utah’s degree-granting institutions are competitive to, if not lower than, peer institutions out of state, according to the most recent comparisons.

Even so, the governor’s budget proposal notes that college costs “are real barriers for many students.”

“Gov. Cox recommends freezing tuition and fees, establishing clear progressions from high school to college to career and expanding targeted workforce development pipelines to clear pathways for higher education,” the proposal states.

Cox has been a vocal critic of President Joe Biden’s initiative to forgive federal student loans up to certain limits. The governor has said he is focused on cutting the cost of a college education.

The state’s higher education system has been studying cost savings that could include shared services for functions such as payroll, purchasing and benefits administration, among others. State lawmakers called for an efficiency study when they passed SB111 in 2020 that required the state’s technical colleges and degree-granting universities and colleges to be part of a single system and the same governing board.

While the Board of Higher Education has expressed its support of the governor’s plan to freeze tuition and fees, college presidents and Utah System of Higher Education staff during the board’s November meeting said they first learned of Cox’s proposal during his monthly televised press conference on PBS Utah in October.

Board Chairwoman Lisa Michele Church said she welcomes the opportunity to engage with Cox and state lawmakers on the proposal.

“I think it was very little about tuition and much more about the funding model. That’s what I think we should focus on as a system. Let’s do the deep thinking this time. Let’s not just patch it, or gloss over it or pick a villain,” she told board members in November.

“Do we always expect students to pay 25% of the salary increase? Or is there a different model?”

While a tuition freeze would likely resonate with students and their parents, one analysis by The Hechinger Report’s nonprofit newsroom found that “historically, freezing tuition offers marginal relief to low-income families while giving the greatest benefits to full-paying families from more affluent backgrounds.”

Phillip Levine, professor of economics at Wellesley College and founder of MyinTuition, a net-price calculator, told Hechinger that a lower sticker price is only useful “if you’re wealthy enough to be paying it, and most students are not.”