SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders of Utah's higher education system have set their priorities and now hope the Legislature will allocate new funding next year to provide better pay for professors, improve student-centered programs and build seven new campus facilities.
In all, the Utah State Board of Regents is asking state lawmakers for about $77 million in new ongoing money — a 9.1 percent increase from the current base budget — as well as about $257.2 million in capital projects.
Apart from new buildings, the largest chunk of the increase — about $32.3 million — and the top-priority request would go toward a 3 percent merit-based compensation increase for college faculty and staff. That's well above the $9.2 million the board requested for improved access and affordability for students, which was second on the list.
But education leaders say each of next year's funding priorities would ultimately boil down to better services and instruction for students.
"We're a very people-intensive enterprise. We compete for talent in regional, national and sometimes international venues, so being able to attract and keep top talent is a top priority," said David Buhler, commissioner of higher education. "If we cannot retain top faculty and staff, we're not going to be very successful in helping students succeed. We're often losing faculty and staff to other institutions around the country."
Typically, about 80 percent of higher education budgets are compensation-related, according to Buhler. Last year, the Board of Regents asked for a 3 percent merit-based pay raise for faculty and staff, and the Legislature funded 2 percent. Overall, this year's funding proposal falls about $1.4 million short of last year's requested increase.
The $9.2 million for access and affordability could change slightly as student headcount is measured over time, but the money would help institutions accommodate a student population that is expected to increase by 50,000 in the next 10 years. That includes expanding offerings of crowded classes, academic support systems and other initiatives for a diverse student population.
"I think it's a broad enough category that it helps us take the dollars and, thinking about what our mission is, use those dollars in the most appropriate way," said Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College. "We need to provide the advisers and the folks that help (students) stay on the path throughout their first year here to navigate and understand college and stay on track."
The board is also hoping the Legislature will appropriate $10 million to expand programs with high market demand or create new programs to meet the needs of industry. Last year, higher education got $4 million of its $10 million request, and this year's proposal seeks to give institutions more resources to align their curriculum with what students will encounter in the workplace, Buhler said.
"There are many, many demands in the marketplace for talent and concerns that we're not meeting all those demands," he said. "I think this is a very exciting category because we know there are a lot of needs with our economy in Utah that a lot of our employers are having difficulty finding the talent they need, and certainly higher education has a responsibility as well as an opportunity to provide that talent."
Performance funding is another priority for education leaders in next year's budget. Early this year, the Legislature established student completion, services provided to traditionally underserved populations, responsiveness to workforce needs, graduation efficiency and graduate research as goals for institutions to focus on.
Next year's request of $15 million in performance funding could be divided between Utah's eight institutions, depending on how well they improve in those areas.
Last on the board's funding priority list for next year is an additional $10.5 million to enhance the cyber security of each institution's networks and to fully fund the Regents' Scholarship.
If all five priority items are fully funded by the Legislature, the Board of Regents expects next year's tuition increase to be 2.5 percent, lower than any increase in the past 15 years.
Huftalin said each funding category is a "worthwhile" investment contributing to the success of Utah's students and economy.
"I think they're all necessary," she said. "I don't want those categories to compete with each other. I want them to stand kind of on their own as a really necessary part of the budget."
The Board of Regents prioritized seven proposed buildings for state funding. Top on the list are Salt Lake Community College's Career and Technical Education Center at Westpointe, Utah Valley University's Performing Arts Building, and the Social Sciences Building at Weber State University.
A renovated business building at Southern Utah University, a medical facility at the University of Utah, a biology building at Utah State University, and a human performance and student wellness center at Dixie State University were also on the list.
Several of the buildings were on last year's priority list but weren't funded by the Legislature. Prioritizing the capital needs of each institution has been challenging, Buhler said.
"This was a very difficult year because we have seven very competitive and very much-needed projects," he said. "Hopefully we'll be able to get several of these funded by the Legislature, and within a couple years, ideally, all of these will be funded."
Each building proposal comes with an estimate of yearly operation and maintenance costs, which range from $349,000 for SUU's repurposed business building to $1.2 million for USU's new biological sciences facility.
Several audits in the past four years have cited transparency gaps in how the Legislature appropriates money for operation and maintenance of higher education buildings, which make up 39 percent of the state's building inventory and 72 percent of the state's capital asset value.
In light of the growing costs, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, Senate chairman of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, raised the possibility early this year of getting the Legislature "out of the building business," reducing costs by contracting smaller structures and using technology to accommodate a growing number of students.
Currently, 1 in 4 college students in Utah are enrolled in at least one Internet course. The number of degrees and certificates offered online has grown by 81 percent since 2010, but the percentage of students taking only online courses has remained constant at 3 percent, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.
Institution leaders say some buildings fill a need for physical space in programs that require hands-on training beyond what virtual classrooms can provide.
Huftalin said the new career and technical education facility at Salt Lake Community College would consolidate several CTE programs in one place and give students a more integrated education experience. It will also open up space in other locations, allowing the college to accommodate additional students in high-demand programs, such as composites production.
If the Legislature decides to meet the board's $38.7 million request for the new structure, Huftalin said the college could to take on as many as 600 additional students, many of whom are currently on the college's waiting list for certificate-level programs.
"It's a building focused on career and technical education, and because we are the applied technology college for Salt Lake County, we feel a strong need to be able to react to that kind of workforce and the training needs," she said. "When we get that additional space, we'll be able to really ramp up the number of graduates we can turn out in a short period of time."
UVU and the Board of Regents are asking for $30 million to begin construction on the university's performing arts center, which has been on the board's priority list for several years. So far, the university has raised $16.5 million in private donations, with more expected before the Legislature convenes in January.
Newell Dayley, dean of UVU's School of the Arts, said community members have been eager to contribute to getting students a new place to practice and perform instead of having to continue using converted office and athletic space as a stage.
UVU is the only university in Utah without a performing arts facility.
"We don't have a theater. We don't have a concert hall. We don't have a dance performance area. The faculty and the students are doing incredible work with nothing, and so this will make a huge difference in the teaching and learning process," Dayley said. "This means so much to us, and the community support that has come for this, the money that's been raised, is phenomenal for UVU."
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