Dan Liljenquist: Higher education reform

Published: Thursday, April 24 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

When state Sen. Steve Urquhart took the reins of higher education appropriations and announced his intention to reform higher education funding, paying for outcomes rather than prestige or history, nobody thought he would be able to pull it off.

Jae C. Hong, AP

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Four years ago, when state Sen. Steve Urquhart took the reins of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee and announced his intention to reform how Utah funds its colleges and universities, paying for outcomes rather than prestige or history or other subjective factors, nobody really thought he would be able to pull it off.

Few funding battles are more political than how higher-education resources are allocated by the state Legislature each year. A little “home-cooking” seems to have always been part of the process, as university presidents and lobbyists lean on their local legislators to fund their specific priorities, often at the direct expense of other competing institutions. Urquhart chose to wade into awfully deep political waters.

Now, after hundreds of hours of work, after digging into every budget line item, after listening intently to the needs of each university president, after traveling the state several times to meet with administrators, faculty and students alike, Urquhart has the trust of the higher-education community.

Armed with his east Texas charm, a knack for storytelling and well-structured arguments, Urquhart successfully championed this past legislative session a new budgeting framework that will help equalize per student funding across all of Utah’s public institutions of higher education. It is a notable achievement that will positively impact higher education for decades to come, repairing historical inequities and laying the foundation for effective pay-for-performance funding in the future.

We as Utahns ought to have a keen interest in how our public colleges and universities perform. Recognizing the societal value of a well-educated citizenry, Utah taxpayers directly subsidize each student who enrolls in our institutions of higher learning. In the 1980s and 1990s, taxpayers picked up 75 percent of the higher-education tab. But our ability to maintain that level of funding has been hampered by exploding enrollment, spiraling costs and competing priorities. Taxpayers now fund around 50 percent of higher education, with more and more of the funding burden falling upon the students and their families.

While funding pressures have increased, graduation rates have decreased. Our best performing universities, the University of Utah and Utah State, have six-year graduation rates in the 50 to 55 percent range; while our community based institutions, like UVU, Dixie and SLCC, have six-year graduation rates in the 20 to 25 percent range. Far too many of our higher education students are leaving our campuses without degrees and burdened by debt.

Urquhart’s vision for higher-education funding is to begin rewarding our colleges and universities for improving graduation rates. Our higher-education institutions could do a much better job of helping their students progress toward graduation by (1) setting clear expectations about how long it should take to obtain a degree, (2) by alleviating scheduling bottlenecks that force students to delay taking key classes, (3) by actively working with public school officials to help ensure college readiness (for example, 70 percent of new higher-education enrollees require remedial math classes), and (4) by keeping meticulous track of each student’s progress, providing counseling as needed.

So far the biggest hurdle to pay-for-performance in higher education has been the disparities in per-pupil funding from institution to institution. It is very difficult to hold UVU to the same graduation standards as the University of Utah when the University of Utah receives more than $7,200 per student while UVU receives $3,200 per student.

Urquhart successfully cleared this hurdle by persuading his legislative colleagues to appropriate $60 million in new higher-education spending to close per-pupil funding disparities between our institutions of higher learning. With a level playing field, we can now focus on increasing graduation rates across the state.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.

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