Deseret Morning News graphic

State dollars for universities and colleges nationwide have hit a record low, forcing students to shoulder more of the cost of going to college, a new report says.

Funding for higher education institutions sank to a 25-year low with similar downward trends mirrored in Utah, according to a report released today from the State Higher Education Executives Officers group.

Inflation and surging enrollment outpaced modest increases in state higher education dollars nationwide, driving down per-student spending to $5,833 — the lowest level since 1981.

At the same time, student tuition nationally jumped an average of 7.7 percent in one year to compensate for the lagging state funds. Utah students faced a 10 percent tuition hike this year with assurances of more to come next year if state dollars don't pick up.

"We're trying to make everyone uncomfortable with this report. Whether it's students or higher-education leaders or governments, we all have to do more," said David Wright, senior analyst at the policy group.

Although per-student state funding generally dips following recession years, Wright said the steep drop in the past five years is an alarming trend.

In Utah, higher-education leaders have watched colleges and universities get a shrinking percentage of the state budget almost annually. In this year's legislative session, education leaders were disappointed with only a 13 percent share of the budget, compared with nearly 18 percent in 1993.

That decreasing "share of the pie" is a signal to Board of Regents Chairman Nolan Karras that higher education is slipping from the state's list of priorities. And where state funds come up short, students are picking up the slack with annual tuition increases.

Some schools like the University of Utah tallied a 45 percent increase since 2001.

"We had to go to the tuition well. What worries me is there will be a point in me where tuition becomes a barrier — it may already be — to young people bettering themselves and getting an education," Karras said.

Students nationally are now funding almost 37 percent of total education costs, compared to only 22 percent in 1981, the report states.

Students are not always going to be able to foot the bill when the state won't, Karras added. Instead, the Utah Legislature needs to shift priorities and realize the economic benefits coming from higher education, he said.

Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley, said higher education's smaller share of the budget this year was a result of competing costs and projects including roads and public education needs.

"You balance them against each other and figure out where would the money most effectively be spent," he said. "Higher education is not a low priority; it's certainly one that we look at."

Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Rich Kendell said while the university system may not be at the bottom of the state's priority list, it is still a ways from moving into the "must-have" category from its current position as a "nice-to-have."

To move into that critical list, however, will take a major shift by legislators to consider the impact of higher education on wages, employment and overall economy, he said.

"I don't think we have cultivated enough true believers that understand higher education is the key to a better future," Kendell said.

The national report also reported 14 percent enrollment growth for U.S. schools and a 7.7 percent increase in tuition.

"Students and their families have borne a substantially larger share of higher-education costs over the past decade; if this trend continues, both the American tradition of affordable higher education and student participation could well be threatened," the report states.