Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
The University of Utah and other colleges in the state are bursting at the seams.

More students are taking more classes on Utah's nine public college and university campuses than ever before. With recent and dramatic cuts in funding, that means tuition hikes are likely on the horizon.

Across the state, 12,632 more students are participating in college courses over last year, an overall 8.3 percent increase — the largest in the 40-year history of the Utah System of Higher Education.

Enrollment changes throughout the state put schools at what commissioner William Sederburg calls a "critical tipping point," where they cannot afford to run as efficiently as expected.

With one-time federal stimulus money set to run out soon, Sederburg said difficult changes will have to be made, including decreased services to students, program eliminations and less course availability, creating a "soft enrollment cap" for students who opt out of school when courses are not available.

All nine institutions experienced significant growth this year, including the College of Eastern Utah, which had struggled to maintain enrollment in the past. Education officials say the recession is driving more students to the classroom. It's also a sign of an increasingly competitive marketplace in which a degree is nearly becoming a necessity.

Dixie State College enrollment climbed 23 percent, the highest of any public college or university in the state, while the state's flagship public university saw its largest increase in 15 years, growing by more than a thousand students. University of Utah officials attribute much of that spike to students who returned to retool current careers.

Increases at Utah Valley University vaulted the already space-constrained school to the third-largest school in the state, with 28,765 students. UVU President Matthew S. Holland said the school expects to add another 10,000 in the next 10 years but is in dire need of new buildings and academic space to accommodate current growth, let alone the future bulge.

"Our largest growth happens to come from our minority populations, but our biggest source is in continuing students, those who were already here," he said, crediting the move to university status as well as development of more degree programs as "more incentive to stick around" at UVU. The Orem institution has the lowest square-footage per student when compared to other schools and Holland said tuition increases would be essential to fend off another bad budget year.

"We can't continue to grow like this and not receive additional funding and still provide a quality education," Holland said.

While the sagging economy has pushed a lot of working adults back to school, many of the surges come from larger-than-ever freshmen classes, specifically at Dixie, which is looking at its second year of increased enrollment. The push has encouraged faculty and staff to add dozens of sections of high-demand courses this semester in the bustling St. George area. According to numbers this year, Dixie is set to turn out 25 percent more graduates.

"We hope these figures drive home the critical point to state leaders that higher education is lifeblood to our state," said Dixie State College Interim President Stephen Nadauld. "Our campuses provide a valuable opportunity for those impacted by today's tough economic climate, highlighting the critical role higher education plays in the economy of our state."

27 comments on this story

Overall, the state's higher education system serves 164,860 students, up from 152,228 last year. In the last decade, state tax support for public colleges and universities has fallen more than 10 percent and currently sits at 60 percent of the cost of a student's education. Funding doesn't increase with the number of students served, as it does for elementary and secondary education in the state, but the burden is shifted to the backs of students in the form of increased tuition.

"Higher education is facing an unprecedented challenge," Sederburg said. "The resources our presidents have to maintain quality services to students are becoming severely limited, and while everything is being done to minimize the impact on quality or to our students, there are limits to what can be done."