Chris Samuels, Deseret News
Students walk past the "block U" on the University of Utah's campus in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.

The Utah State Board of Regents is responsible under state law for overseeing operations of the state’s eight public colleges and universities, which makes it difficult to understand how the board has come to offer only a “superficial review” over a trend toward escalating tuition costs, as pointed out in a recent legislative audit.

While the findings of the audit are disappointing, the reaction among higher-education officials is encouraging. Leaders have promised to be more vigilant in assessing tuition increase proposals and to step up efforts to formalize a long-term strategy that envisions making higher education more accessible for more prospective students.

Rising costs have priced a lot of would-be students out of a four-year degree and forced many others to undertake burdensome student loans. Education leaders like to point out that tuition levels among Utah public institutions are typically below the national average, but even so, they have been on a sharp upward trajectory in recent years — an aggregate increase of $132 million since 2013. And, as the audit states, "Comparatively low tuition does not absolve the board of regents of its oversight responsibilities."

At the heart of that responsibility is the board’s duty to address a growing disparity in the amount of state money that pays for college operations, as opposed to how much of the costs are borne by students. The Government Accounting Office found that between 2003 and 2012, state funding for public colleges across the nation decreased by 12 percent, while median tuition rose by 55 percent. The trend has been toward less state investment in higher education, with the effect of putting more of the burden for bearing institutional costs on students through their tuition payments. In 2011, for the first time, tuition revenues began paying more for college operations than state appropriations, according to the GAO.

" Opening the doors of higher education to more prospective students is critical to continued economic prosperity in Utah.  "

Utah policy leaders have previously acknowledged that trend and pledged to address it. Two years ago, the Board of Regents adopted a strategic plan that includes development of a system of metrics to assess appropriate levels of state investment in higher education. Preliminarily, the plan anticipates a “consistent annual investment of state funds of 5.2 percent,” which is 30 percent higher than what has flowed from state coffers over a 10-year average.

In reaction to the recent performance audit, higher education leaders have also promised to work on setting appropriate goals for student affordability and to better monitor the use of tuition revenues by individual institutions, as opposed to merely serving as a ceremonial entity wielding a rubber stamp. It’s important that the board and higher-education administrators make good on that promise.

16 comments on this story

Opening the doors of higher education to more prospective students is critical to continued economic prosperity in Utah. The economy increasingly demands an educated workforce, and obstacles to higher learning are clear causes of increasing income and wealth disparity.

The Board of Regents is empowered and obligated to make sure schools are properly funded, managed and on track to reach vital goals of student accessibility, efficiency in operations and innovation in curricula. It’s among the most important roles in state government, and it’s critical that board members and higher-education leaders put full focus on meeting that responsibility.