SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's college enrollment continues to grow. Higher education officials are saying that growth could have been much larger, but was stunted by limited funding for buildings and faculty.
The comments are a subtle poke at Utah's lawmakers to increase funding in light of the apparent growing demand by students seeking a college education.
Numbers released Monday show that Utah's higher education system saw a 1.66 percent increase in overall headcount to 174,013. But officials say there are many more students dropping off because of overflowing classes.
"We would have seen even greater growth this year if colleges had not been forced to limit course offerings due to space and faculty availability," said Commissioner of Higher Education Bill Sederburg. "To reach our 'big goal' to achieve 66 percent of Utah's workforce with a post-secondary credential in the next decade, it is extremely important that enrollment numbers continue to grow each year."
The University of Utah remains the largest state institution in terms of full-time enrollment, seeing a 2.23 percent growth over last year to 26,227. The largest full-time enrollment growth was experienced by Dixie State College, which saw a 4.52 percent increase to 6,395 full-time students.
"We're pleased to be able to continue to serve the educational needs of southern Utah and our expanding region," said Dixie State President Stephen Nadauld. "We are very grateful for our faculty who shoulder the extra work of teaching the increased number of students."
Enrollment declines were seen Southern Utah University, but the largest decline was seen by Salt Lake Community College, which lost 2.4 percent. The decline means Utah Valley University now takes the mantle of having the most students, overall, in the state.
UVU President Matthew Holland said while his school grew by 700 students this year, he believes limits on resources prevented many more students from joining. "We believe we could have grown much, much more than that," Holland said.
While UVU is an open-enrollment school, meaning they accept students who apply regardless of grades or background, UVU officials have seen enrolled students drop out because they cannot get into courses they need. Holland said the school had 3,000 freshmen accepted this year who subsequently dropped out. While the school is still in the process of surveying those students, Holland said their initial take is that they leave due to course availability.
"Our initial sense is that they're peeling off and just not going to school," Holland said. "That's a real problem."
Holland said he plans to request a "bread and butter" classroom and office building from lawmakers, adding staff has had to expand offices into the hallways of existing buildings.
So far, many institutions have relied on online courses to fill the need. UVU has seen a 12 percent increase in online courses. Salt Lake Community College has also greatly expanded online courses to keep up with demand.
In an open letter to the Utah college community, SLCC President Cynthia Bioteau called the 4 percent drop in enrollment a "deliberate and tactical" decision. She points out that full-time student enrollment at the college has increased 18.7 percent over the past four years. Recent cuts to federal/state funds and the decision by the Utah Board of Regents and SLCC trustees to limit tuition increases forced the college to cut 133 class sections this year.
"Salt Lake Community College is more efficient today than it has ever been," Bioteau said. "We remain committed to our comprehensive community college mission of access, and as importantly, success."
Bottom line, said Sederburg, Utah's higher education system is straining at the seams from demand. "The budget reduction, plus the strong growth in recent years, has really filled up the campuses," he said, adding the Utah Legislature has not funded for overall growth, including increases in part-time students, for eight years.
Sederburg said higher education officials plan to ask the Legislature for funding to cover 60 percent of the current enrollment increases, but he doubts lawmakers will provide. "I'm not betting a lot of money on it," he said.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company