Senate committee advances tuition waiver, charter school, degree attainment bills

Published: Monday, Feb. 4 2013 8:45 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Bills to combat enrollment woes, remove charter school oversight and endorse a statewide goal of increasing the number of adults with post-high school education received unanimous support Monday from the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, presented SB51, which would enable college and university officials to waive the increased tuition costs for out-of-state students to address the anticipated enrollment crisis resulting from changes to LDS Church missionary age requirements.

According to a recent report by the Utah System of Higher Education, enrollment at the state's public institutions is expected to decrease by between 2 percent and 10 percent over the next two years. The dip in enrollment is expected to carry a significant financial burden for schools, affecting everything from tuition revenue to auxiliary services such as housing, dining and bookstore sales.

The bill, Urquhart said, would equip school presidents with a means of filling some of those empty seats with out-of-state students who may not otherwise study in Utah. The tuition waivers would be based on merit, he said, with the requirement that a student's academic record be above average for that particular school.

"I think that this could be a very good way to fill this financial hole while at the same time improve the caliber of students going to each of our institutions," Urquhart said.

Utah State President Stan Albrecht said the university has lost 650 students in the 2013 spring semester alone and expects to take a hit of $19 million in lost revenue over the next two years.

"This is something that would help us in a very positive way," Albrecht said of the bill.

With SB151, the committee advanced a bill that would modify the approval oversight for college- and university-partnered charter schools. Specifically, the bill would remove the requirement for an applied technology campus to gain approval from the Utah College of Applied Technology Board of Trustees to create a new charter school.

Last year, a charter school created in partnership between the Davis School District and the Davis Applied Technology Center was delayed by the board due to funding concerns.

Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, the bill's sponsor, described the current process as "cumbersome" and said it was his intent to make it more efficient for local campus boards of directors to make decisions for their communities.

Rob Brems, president of the Utah College of Applied Technology thanked Adams for his work to improve the UCAT system but added that the board of trustees was opposed to the terms of the bill.

"I believe that they would like the opportunity to retain that role," Brems said.

The committee also discussed SCR5, a resolution sponsored by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, that would formally endorse and express support for the state's goal of 66 percent of Utah adults holding a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2020.

The goal has been a major component of Gov. Gary Herbert's long-term economic and educational plans and has been endorsed by several public and private entities, including the State Board of Education, Utah System of Higher Education, Utah School Boards Association, Utah College of Applied Technology, the Governor's Education Excellence Commission and Prosperity 2020.

The resolution passed the committee unanimously, though several lawmakers said they want to see estimates on what achieving that goal would cost the state over the next seven years.

"Our schools, many of our classrooms are bursting at the seams," said Sen. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City. "I still think there will be a requirement for more investment in our schools."

Stevenson said education officials have presented some funding estimates related to the 2020 goal, but the specific needs and requirements will be reassessed each year. He also said that even if the state should fail to reach 66 percent, adopting the goal presents a unified vision that lawmakers, educators, parents and students can work toward.

"... It hooks the target up on the mountain for us to take a shot at," Stevenson said. "Even if we fall a little short, we're still better off than the 43 percent we're at now."

Mark Bouchard, chairman of Prosperity 2020, a public/private partnership geared toward improving educational outcomes, said the specific plans related to the 66 percent goal will mature and evolve with time. By early next year, however, lawmakers should have a clearer picture presented to them of what is required for the remaining portion of the seven-year initiative, he said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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