Deseret News
FILE: College and university enrollment in Utah is trending upward again, with the state's smaller institutions seeing big increases and the larger ones growing too.

SALT LAKE CITY — College and university enrollment in Utah is trending upward again, with the state's smaller institutions seeing big increases and the larger ones growing, too.

Maintaining its lead as the largest institution within the Utah System of Higher Education is Utah Valley University, which invited nearly 35,000 students back to campus this fall — 1,770 over enrollment at the Orem school at the same time last year.

"Few institutions have evolved like UVU has, particularly in such a relatively brief span," said UVU President Matthew S. Holland. "This region has asked UVU to offer more with each passing generation to meet the needs of both a growing populace and economy, and it has always delivered and will continue to deliver."

Though UVU has the highest number of students on campus, with 23,706 full-time equivalents, the University of Utah is educating the most full-time students taking 15 or more semester hours of classes or at least 10 hours each semester for graduate students.

And Dixie State University reported a nearly 7.4 percent increase in full-time equivalent students over last fall's enrollment. The St. George school welcomed almost almost 9,000 students to campus this year.

UVU has added more than 8,000 students since it transitioned to university status in 2008. This year's enrollment boost at UVU accounts for 37 percent of the total growth of the Utah System of Higher Education and is bolstered by an uptick in the number of students staying at UVU to complete any one of 75 degree programs available.

Holland said the university, though relatively young compared with other schools in the state, is designed to grow and has an "access mission."

"We need institutions within reach of students where they are financially and where they are academically," he said. "Our efforts are to keep tuition low, and achieve and maintain a dynamic and diverse population."

This year's growth at UVU, which was established in 1941, also included a deliberate 7 percent increase in female students, as colleges and universities across the state have worked to entice more women into higher education opportunities.

Holland said UVU's rigor and true university experience, inclusivity to make all groups comfortable on campus, efforts to provide engaged learning experiences, and a focus on student success and preparation for the real world makes the school attractive to more young adults.

In addition to having the most growth year after year, UVU also boasts the greatest number of home-bred students, as well as the highest percentage of students who stay in Utah after graduation, which Holland said is somewhat due to the valley's unique geography, "but a lot of it is a reflection of our mission."

"We do have, at UVU and in Utah, a very unique model of higher education," he said, adding that in addition to bachelor and master level courses, the university provides a variety of two-year programs, much like that of a community college.

"There really is something for everyone here — short of heavy-duty research operations which are needed and critical and provided elsewhere in the state. We offer a tremendous variety for students to pick and choose from to help them pursue training and education for industry and civic life," Holland said.

Colleges and universities throughout the state saw flat growth between the fall of 2012 through 2014, likely due to an announcement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decreasing the age when young adults could choose to serve proselytizing missions. But in 2015, numbers increased again, with those having served returning from their 18 months to two years of service.

This year, Utah's higher education system is again increasing in size, with 175,509 students attending one of the state's eight public colleges or universities.

"With this continuing growth, our colleges and universities are working hard to ensure courses are available and services are maintained for our students," said Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Buhler.

Utah State University saw a small decrease this fall, with a 1.76 percent change in enrollment numbers, though just half that in full-time equivalent numbers. The state is educating 123,398 full-time students across the board fall semester, including an increase of 4,739 students.

In fall semester of 2015, the Utah System of Higher Education added 3,453 students.

"As we serve a growing number of students — we anticipate adding 52,000 students in the next decade — it will be crucial to receive legislative funding to keep higher education accessible and affordable for all Utahns," Buhler said.

Utah government has an objective for at least 66 percent of the state's work force to attain a postsecondary degree or certification and a significant portion of the budget is spend to maintain access and affordability as enrollment grows, according to a governor's budget and policy brief released early this year.

Higher education is one of the largest programs funded in the state budget, with about $809 million coming from the state — roughly 17 percent of the state's total expenditures. The remaining balance of the $1.5 billion higher education instructional budget comes from tuition and fees, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.

Utah continues to have some of the lowest tuition costs when compared nationally, though tuition is increasing at a higher rate than overall inflation, the budget brief notes.

Holland said that while it is anticipated that all of Utah's colleges and universities will continue to grow, UVU will be asked "to carry a significant component of that moving forward." The UVU student body is expected to top 40,000 by 2020 and approach 47,000 by 2025.

"It is forcing us to be more efficient, but we do need that continued support from the Legislature for ongoing funding and capital facilities … even as we are doing everything we can to be more efficient and educate more students with fewer dollars and less square footage," he said.

UVU has three ongoing construction projects for new buildings, though Holland said "we're constantly at work and planning for the future."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards