Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Students come and go at the Student center at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville. Enrollment at Utah's public colleges and universities saw a slight decline this year, according to figures released Friday by the Utah System of Higher Education.

SALT LAKE CITY — After several years of growth, enrollment at Utah's public colleges and universities saw a slight decline this year, according to figures released Friday by the Utah System of Higher Education.

Statewide, the total number of students fell by 2,721, or 1.56 percent. Enrollment held steady when adjusted to estimate the number of full-time equivalent, or FTE students — which is used for budgeting purposes — falling by 38 students or 0.03 percent of the state's total.

Dave Buhler, commissioner of higher education, said there are a number of factors that may be impacting enrollment. Years of record growth and budget cuts due to the recession have caused some institutions to run at or near capacity, he said, making it harder for students to enroll in classes. Some schools have also raised admissions standards, and with the economy improving, many students may be returning to full-time professional work, he said.

"To reach Utah’s ‘big goal’ of 66 percent of adults with a college certificate or degree, we will need more students to enroll and complete their education,” Buhler said in a prepared statement.

Even with the decrease, enrollment numbers remain above prerecession levels for all of the state's public colleges and universities. Overall, the number of FTE students is up roughly 18 percent since 2008.

Southern Utah University and Weber State University saw the greatest FTE increase since 2011, growing by 3.09 percent and 2.98 percent respectively. The growth at WSU marks the first time the university has surpassed 26,000 total students.

Salt Lake Community College fell the most in one year, shedding 3.12 percent of its FTE.

In addition to the reversal of statewide growth trends, the numbers are also significant in that they reinstate the University of Utah as the largest university in the state in terms of both total head count and FTE students.

Utah Valley University overtook the state's flagship school in total headcount last fall, but experienced a 5.51 percent drop for the new school year. 

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“We fully expected enrollment to dip this fall as we put in place mechanisms that will allow UVU to remain open to any student while simultaneously increasing academic quality across the curriculum and enhancing student success,” UVU President Matthew Holland said in a prepared statement.

“The policies introduced now will position UVU more favorably to carry out our vital mission roles of access and teaching excellence well into the horizon," he said.

According to the Utah System of Higher Education, the enrollment figures do not include thousands of students in nontraditional programs such as short-term training programs or non-credit technical training. More than 30,000 high school students who participate in concurrent enrollment courses are also not included in the figures.