Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
FILE - Patricia Jones watches elementary school children perform as Friends of Art Works for Kids hosts six elementary schools in the state Capitol rotunda in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013.

OREM — Utah students of limited means would pay no tuition or fees for two years to attend state colleges, universities and technical colleges under a legislative initiative dubbed the "college access scholarship."

The scholarship program would be patterned after existing initiatives at Weber State University and Salt Lake Community College that cover costs of tuition and general student fees where federal financial aid falls short for low-income students who take full academic loads.

The access scholarship would extend the effort statewide, supported by $30 million in ongoing state support.

Regent Patricia Jones, a former state senator, said this proposal — paired with an initiative to place a college adviser in every public high school in Utah within the next few years — will be a game changer for many students.

"I really feel like were on the cusp of something really great here for higher education," Jones said during a meeting of the Utah State Board of Regents Friday at Utah Valley University.

Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, a retired school counselor, will carry the legislation, supported by Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.

"Sen. Vickers and I are first-generation college graduates and we have a passion for students helping students who don’t have access," Owens said.

The college access scholarship would also be available to qualifying adults returning to college and in public-partnerships with industry, Owens said. Applicants must complete the application for federal financial aid.

Other state scholarship programs, such as merit-based the Regents’ Scholarship, would be phased out and state funding would go toward the access initiative. The Regents' Scholarship encourages Utah high school students to prepare for college academically and financially.

Owens acknowledged that phasing out state scholarship programs might be politically unpopular but he said he is aware of students awarded the Regents' Scholarship and others who have been "pocketing a lot of money every semester."

"I don’t think that’s what the Regents' Scholarship was meant to be," Owens said. "I'd like to see it change to a target of children in need."

Utah's Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Buhler said Regents' Scholarships that have already been awarded need to be honored.

One other significant change Owens is considering is limiting the access scholarship to state institutions. Presently, 40 percent go to students attending private colleges and universities, he said.

While the presidents of state college and universities were supportive of the initiative, University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins said the system needs to consider the needs of students who receive two years of support for tuition and fees "so they don’t go off a resource cliff" as they further their education.

Weber State University President Brad Mortensen said the Weber Dream program, launched in 2010, provides free tuition and general student fees to students whose annual household incomes are $40,000 or less.

The program is supported by federal and state financial aid and private giving.

SLCC's Promise program requires students to take a full class load and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA. Qualifying students must also meet with an adviser to develop a two-year degree plan.

SLCC Promise encourages students to take full class loads so they are more likely to complete their degrees, complete them sooner and at less expense. The aid encourages students to concentrate on their studies but at a school like SLCC where many students work to support families, taking at least 12 credit hours "is difficult for some of our students," said SLCC President Deneece Huftalin.

Another legislative proposal supported by the regents is the $6 million request for an eventual statewide expansion of the Utah College Advising Corps.

The program helps high school students make successful transitions to higher education under the guidance of "near peer" college access advisers who work in their high schools.

Buhler said $1 million of the projected $7 million ongoing cost of placing a college access adviser in every public high school in Utah will come from a reallocation of existing funds in the Utah System of Higher Education's budget.

The goal of the plan is to scale the advising program statewide by the 2021-22 school year. However, it is anticipated that the 33 high schools will have full-time college access advisers for 2019-20 school year.

Ogden School District Superintendent Rich Nye supports the expansion, which will include two schools in his school district, Ogden and Ben Lomond.

"Having a person on the ground, full time, helping students navigate college admissions and the financial aid process will be instrumental to getting more of our students connected to college opportunities. Our students, particularly those who are underserved or would be first in their family to go to college, will especially benefit from this effort," Nye said in statement.

Another legislative proposal that would represent a significant sea change in past practice is a bill sponsored by Senate Assistant Minority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, that would establish ongoing funding for college and university buildings.

The bill would curb the competition among state colleges and universities for state funding for projects on their respective campus. Or as Harris Simmons, chairman of the board of regents, put it, "A lot of oxygen in the room is spent on capital facilities."

11 comments on this story

In many respects, the state's higher education system stands united on most issues, said regent Bob Marquardt, "except for this one area."

But he sees some value from the legislative debate because the process stirs support and interest in the system from lawmakers.

Southern Utah University President Scott Wyatt said SUU does not enjoy the same legislative support because fewer legislators represent rural Utah. In 10 years, SUU has been appropriated $8 million for capital facilities, he said.

"Some of us have not fared as well when it’s the political process," Wyatt said.