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The Utah Legislature's Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee raised questions about tuition waivers granted by state colleges and universities Thursday, with one lawmaker wondering aloud whether they are "self-imposed budget cuts."

SALT LAKE CITY — State college and university tuition waivers totaling more than $138 million in the past year piqued the attention of state lawmakers Thursday as a budget subcommittee settled on base budget recommendations for the state's public education system.

Tuition waivers are a form of financial aid used to help students pay for college. Some colleges and universities even call them scholarships.

According to a brief prepared by legislative fiscal analysts, state colleges and universities have increased total tuition waived from "$81 million in FY 2014 to $138.1 million in FY 2017."

This represents a 70.6 percent increase over a three-year period.

"The $138.1 million of tuition waived in FY 2017 represents a system average of 15 percent of gross tuition, but by institution, varies from 7.9 percent to 27.6 percent," according to the brief.

Higher education officials say tuition waivers help keep college affordable and encourage students from out of state to attend college in Utah. However, the costs of not collecting full tuition have to be covered elsewhere, generally through cost-cutting measures or by increasing tuition.

Lawmakers acknowledge that the 21 types of tuition waivers extended by the state's colleges and universities were authorized by the Legislature. However, some legislators question the growing practice of not collecting a portion of many students' tuition — both resident and nonresident — while at the same time requesting funding from state lawmakers to fund growth and other initiatives.

"We've never actually funded tuition waivers. This is just something the universities have chosen to do," said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, during the Utah Legislature's Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday.

"What tuition waivers are, essentially, they are choosing to cut their own budget and then possibly making that up through the tuition of other students, although I'm not saying that's the only avenue."

The subcommittee voted to cut the higher education system's budget by 1.5 percent — 0.5 percent across the board and 1 percent for tuition waivers.

The subcommittee's actions are preliminary. Conceivably, once the state has a firmer handle on revenue projection, cuts could be restored.

In any event, some subcommittee members said the group would benefit from a deeper dive into the issue to better understand the colleges' and universities' increased use of tuition waivers and whether it's "good or bad policy," Daw said.

"It may be a hidden tuition increase on in-state students," Daw said. "I think it's a worthy discussion to have."

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Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, a former president of Weber State University, urged caution with cuts to the system noting the complexity of college and university budgets and funding academic programs.

"This is really complex when they have to make budget cuts because … if you have students in a program, you've got to be able to carry them through that program. There's a very legitimate need for flexibility here at the institutional level to work through where you cut and how you cut up to the point we don't disadvantage our students," she said.