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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Students join the the national #MillionStudentMarch movement by rallying at the University of Utah for tuition free college in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — This year, Utah Valley University became the largest higher education institution in the state.

Public college tuition rates increased by the lowest increment since 1999, but students on average still paid $140 more than last year.

Most colleges and universities felt a wave of students returning from missionary service after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowered the age requirement in 2012, which spurred a drop in enrollment.

Utah remains on track toward its goal of having 66 percent of its working population with a college education by the year 2020.

These and other highlights are causing education leaders to reflect on 2015 as a pivotal year for higher education. And as students return to campus for a new semester next month, officials hope the new year will bring more opportunities and innovative solutions for student success.

"2015 was a good year for higher education in Utah," said David Buhler, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education. "The Legislature, I think, has been very supportive. The governor's been very supportive. Things are definitely going in the right direction. We're excited for the future."

Enrollment

Utah this year enrolled about 170,770 students in its eight public colleges and universities, an increase of about 3,500 students from 2014. The increase came at the front of a wave of returning LDS missionaries and at the tail of a three-year lull in college enrollment.

Southern Utah University saw the largest growth rate in its student population, which jumped 16 percent from last year to a total of 8,881 students, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.

This year's student growth also caused UVU to surpass the University of Utah as having the most students of any institution in the state. UVU increased its enrollment by 6 percent, accounting for more than half the growth experienced by all eight institutions.

"I think the enrollment story is a big story for us," UVU President Matthew Holland said. "Even beyond that, it is that signal that UVU has become a real destination place for students who are not only coming, but they're staying."

As a private institution, Brigham Young University isn't included in the Utah System of Higher Education's calculations. But it was, perhaps, the institution most visibly affected by the wave of returning missionaries.

BYU announced in September that its enrollment had jumped by 2,943 students in 2015. The percentage of students there who have served LDS missions also surged from 46 percent to 63 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to BYU officials.

In total, UVU had the largest enrollment in 2015 with 33,211 students, BYU had 32,615, the U. had 31,673, Salt Lake Community College had 28,814, Utah State University had 28,622, Weber State University had 25,955, SUU had 8,881, Dixie State University had 8,503 and Snow College had 5,111.

While annual additions to Utah's student body are projected to go down, institution leaders continue preparing for the growth that lies ahead, Buhler said.

"We're a young state. We're a growing state. One of our big priorities is to make sure we can accommodate the students we're projected to have coming into our system," he said. "We're looking at 50,000 new students in the next 10 years, which is like taking a couple large institutions together."

It poses a yearly challenge for institutions in ensuring adequate one-on-one support for students and that enough seats are available to prevent a bottleneck effect in key courses, where student progress is delayed due to high enrollment.

SUU also faced a housing dilemma this year while welcoming the largest freshman class in the institution's history.

It's still unclear how the increase in enrollment will affect completion. Graduation rates for the 2014-15 school year won't be compiled and released until next spring, according to Utah System of Higher Education spokeswoman Melanie Heath.

In the 2013-14 school year, Utah's public institutions had an average graduation rate of 41 percent, ranging from 62 percent at the U. to 16 percent at Salt Lake Community College.

"We know we still have a long way to go because system-wide, still about half of our students graduate, and that's not good enough. We're not at all satisfied," Buhler said. "We need to keep pushing to help more students be successful."

Despite the challenges, institution leaders remain thrilled with the growth, especially because more minority and low-income students are going to college. Hispanic enrollment, for example, increased by 10 percent overall this year.

"It really reflects the growing diversity of Utah, and that's important for all of us in higher education," said Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for academic affairs at the U. "We're pleased about the capacity to grow with the population of the state and the region."

Tuition

Students this fall saw a tuition increase of 3 percent at most public institutions, with a 3.5 percent increase at the U. On average, the increase cost $140 for resident undergraduates and $166 for resident graduate students. Costs for nonresident students went up by an average of $487 for undergraduates and $543 for graduates.

It's a costly change, but 3 percent is the lowest average tuition increase in Utah since 1999. Utah also ranks well compared to the cost of going to college in other states.

In a recent report by CollegeBoard, a national nonprofit for student advocacy, Utah's average tuition rate of $6,360 ranked fourth-lowest in the country, well below a national average of $9,410.

"I was really pleased that with support from the Legislature and the governor, we were able to keep our tuition increase to the lowest level in 16 years, and that's a trend we'd love to continue," Buhler said. "We'd really like to keep tuition increases as low as possible."

The Legislature this year approved a 5.3 percent increase to the higher education budget, including funding to cover 75 percent of a 2 percent salary increase for college instructors. The other 25 percent was made up by tuition.

Utah also has the lowest average student debt amount in the country, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, a national nonprofit. In an October report, the institute reported that Utah's average student debt load was $18,921, compared to the national average of $28,950.

Utah also had the ninth-lowest portion of students with debt at 54 percent, compared to 61 percent nationally, the report states.

Next year's state funding request by the Utah System of Higher Education includes $32.3 million for merit-based salary raises, $9.2 million for student access, $10 million for enhancing programs that meet the needs of Utah's economy, $15 million for performance funding, and $10.5 million for cyber security and scholarships.

If the Legislature meets that request, the next tuition increase would be 2.5 percent, Buhler said.

Performance funding

A $9 million share of this year's budget increase went toward performance funding, a growing initiative in Utah that bases a portion of budget increases on how well institutions meet various goals.

While the approach of awarding new funding based on student outcomes is still new, education leaders have been cautiously willing to take on the new funding model. But their consensus is it would not be a suitable model to implement for all education funds.

"I would still love to see a few adjustments to the current formula, but conceptually, I think it's a good direction to go," Holland said. "To the extent that we're seeing it as a work in progress moving forward, I'm in favor of it."

Utah's eight public universities have diverse missions, ranging from academic research to career and technical training. So the Legislature has allowed some flexibility for each institution's progress, so long as they focus on several key metrics.

Those metrics include the number of degrees and certificates granted, providing academic services to underserved populations, raising the graduation rate, being responsive to workforce needs and market demands, and the output of research at the U. and USU.

While performance funding looks different at each institution, education leaders are hopeful it will be an impetus for innovation in ensuring more students earn the skills they need to succeed in a career.

"We're pleased about that focus," Watkins said. "We're delighted to be part of that, and think it is quite valuable. I think the Legislature has done a really thoughtful job developing those metrics and balancing a portion of resources in performance-based funding, but not all funding in performance-based."

Lawmakers have expressed interest in revisiting the performance funding model to adjust it over time as more funding is added.

"I think we're off to a very solid start," Buhler said. "Over time, I think that's going to continue to help us to move the needle in a very positive direction."

Prosperity 2020

Three years ago, state leaders, lawmakers and educators established a goal of having two-thirds of Utah's workforce with either a college degree or a technical certification by 2020. 2015 brought the state closer to making that goal a reality, both in time and progress.

In order to reach the 66 percent threshold, Utah is projected to have to award some 337,000 cumulative diplomas between 2011 and 2020. So far, the state has awarded 158,407 of them, just ahead of its 2015 benchmark of 158,000.

But the curve gets steeper as 2020 nears. Next year, the state will need to add another 800 diplomas to the tally for a total of 34,010 awards. By the 2019-20 school year, Utah will have to be giving out 37,570 diplomas.

"We are on track for our goal," Buhler said. "The curve does get steeper as we go on. It's a very ambitious goal, but I think it's been a very positive goal the governor has set for the state of Utah."

Ambitious as the goal is, its merits are demonstrated by a state economy that is becoming more dependant — and more desperate — on having a well-educated workforce.

A recent Utah Foundation survey of 151 local companies found that 71 percent of them had some level of difficulty finding qualified employees. The study also found that 68 percent of companies are offering below-median wages for positions that are difficult to fill.

The 66 by 2020 goal, combined with an area of performance funding dedicated to meeting workforce needs, has helped institution leaders refocus their efforts, according to Holland.

"I think it's had a great power to focus people's attention on the fact that we definitely need more of our adult population with postsecondary degrees," Holland said. "I think we still have a lot of work cut out, though, to hit that goal."

Staying on track for meeting the goal will become more difficult with each year as the number of required degrees goes up while enrollment growth rates are expected to decline.

And while the goal itself is defined by numbers, educators hope it will impact individual lives and their ability to make a difference in their community.

"The numbers are very important, but what I think is even more important is the direction we're going: Are we expanding the number of students who have the opportunity to go to college? Are we increasing the number of those who successfully complete?" Buhler said. "We're very focused on that."

Email: [email protected], Twitter: MorganEJacobsen