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Utah Universities Raise Tuition Amidst Growing Economic Uncertainty And Campus Closures

Photo of a campus map on the Utah State University campus
Brian Albers
Utah State University will see some of the highest tuition hikes among Utah's public colleges.

The Utah System of Higher Education Board of Regents voted Thursday to raise tuition at seven of the state’s eight public universities. 

The increases, regents and college presidents said, are needed mostly to cover the pay raises for faculty and staff that have already been promised. 

The state Legislature earlier this year approved 2.5% salary increases for public university employees, allocating more than $27 million to cover the majority of the raises and leaving the remaining 25% for colleges to fund.

But given the uncertainty around when schools and the broader economy can start up again, USHE board member Sanchaita Datta argued that raising students’ costs right now is a bad look. 

“We just don’t want to come across as tone deaf,” Datta said. “When all the private industries are talking about reducing the workforce, we are talking about tuition increases and pay raises. How does that sound?”

Datta was one of only two dissenting voices against the decision, which will ultimately raise tuition by an average of 1.87%. Tuition hikes are typically approved in March and implemented in the summer, but under current circumstances USHE is allowing schools flexibility as to when they go into effect. So far, only Utah Valley University and the University of Utah are delaying when the increases will hit — Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, respectively. 

The highest dollar amount increase will go to Utah State University students — $183 a semester — while USU’s Eastern, Moab and Blanding campuses will see the highest percentage increase — 3.5%, or an additional $123 a semester. For the second year in a row, Southern Utah University did not request a tuition hike. 

Regents say the increases are the smallest they’ve requested in 20 years, on top of in-state tuitions that are already among the lowest in the country. 

They said they’re also in-line with USHE’s new working definition of what it means for a college to be affordable, approved Thursday as well and designed to guide how board members assess future tuition and fee hikes.

Members agreed affordability is “the ability of a traditional full-time Utah student from a family of four to cover the cost of attendance at a USHE institution while living at home with financial aid, reasonable family savings, and the student contributing 10 hours of weekly work earnings, without incurring student debt.”

In addition to the increases, Utah colleges are expected to receive some of the $14 billion in federal aid money intended to help U.S. higher education cover ongoing costs as campuses close down but faculty and staff stay on. The aid also temporarily suspends student-loan payments through the end of September. Though it’s not clear yet how the money will be divided. 

Unlike the relief package, USHE commissioner David Woolstenhulme said the tuition increases are not intended as a backstop against the broader economic uncertainty around the coronavirus, nor to assist colleges offering students refunds for the current semester’s food and housing. 

They’re needed to keep faculty and staff in place. They’re more crucial than ever, USHE chairman Harris Simmons said, both to continue educating students and to help provide solutions to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Even through downturns like this, your best people are always at risk of leaving,” he said. “So yes this is a lot about students. It’s also about making sure that we retain good people.”

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

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