State Leg. focuses on tuition

N-Capitol Colby Patterson
The Utah State Capitol is lit up on the second day of the legislative session. Photo by Brent Uberty.

The Utah State Capitol is lit up on the second
day of the legislative session. Photo by Brent Uberty.

Curbing tuition costs is at the top of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee agenda this session in the State Legislature.

The committee met for the first time Tuesday to run over performance audits and issue briefs from universities and colleges across the state. They discussed both rising tuition and fees, estimating that tuition at the U for in-state students is now at $6,500, with fees ranging from $400 to $950.

State Sen. Stephen Urquhart (R-St. George), chairman of the committee, said he plans to put all institutions of higher education on the “hot seat” as the legislators consider their budgets individually.

Over the coming weeks, each institution will defend its budget to the committee, which plans to streamline processes at Utah schools.

“If there are cuts, we say, ‘You have a cut of x. Deal with it,’ ” Urquhart said.

The committee aims to spend wisely and support Utahns pursuing higher education, in line with Gov. Gary Herbert’s goal for 66 percent of Utahns to have some type of elevated degree by 2020.

Urquhart said it is important for legislators to help students because they “vote with their feet.” When students realize they are sinking money into a degree that might not help them get a job, they decide to move on, Urquhart said.

State Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper), questioned whether all majors should be equally subsidized. He suggested the Legislature give extra support to degrees that will lead students into careers that need workers, such as engineering.

Even though the Legislature has delegated regulating tuition costs to the Board of Regents, they are still looking for ways to “arrest … the costs” from future increases.

Spencer Jenkins from the Board of Regents said tuition is basically set “on an incremental basis.”

Urquhart announced that tuition will be a priority from the start of the session.

“We are a low-tuition state, and that is a tremendous strength, but even there you look at the increases we have had over the last decade, and it is just staggering,” he said. “As a state, as a legislature, we need to step up.”

The committee also heard a performance audit report that stated Redzone stores at the U were interfering with the private sector. State Rep. Jack Draxler (R-Logan) said he requested the audit to address the exemption of sales tax at university bookstores, which is not a statewide policy.

The Legislature may look to implement regulations regarding who can make tax-free purchases at bookstores over the coming weeks as well.

a.drysdale@chronicle.utah.edu