December 1, 2009

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Making the Grade

Higher Education is Utah’s Current Business Boom

By Spencer Sutherland

December 1, 2009

In today’s economy, when most companies are struggling to stay afloat, the word “growth” seems like nothing more than a distant memory from better days. But amid the downsizing, consolidating and restructuring, one Utah industry is experiencing unprecedented growth: higher education. Utah’s higher education industry is booming, with enrollment up nearly 25 percent from 2008. For the state’s college and university classrooms, however, the increase is not necessarily a good thing. Due to recent cuts in the state’s education budget, schools are struggling to serve more students with fewer dollars. The Challenges Weber State University President Ann Millner has a simple explanation for the overwhelming growth. “When the economy sinks, enrollment goes up,” she says, explaining that higher education enrollment is counter-cyclical—when the economy is strong, enrollment drops because many high school graduates head directly into the workforce. Also, those who are employed have little reason to go back to school. Today, however, the opposite is true. “More students out of high school are deciding that higher education needs to be part of their preparation for work and life,” Millner says. “The second component is the returning student—those who want to have all the job skills they need to be able to succeed in the weak economy and [those who are] returning because they’re out of work.” Consequently, head count at Weber is up 25 percent during the past two years. “In the university setting, that is a significant increase,” Millner says, especially given the 17 percent education budget cut this past legislative session. “We’re serving more students with fewer dollars. In a difficult budget environment, what we worry about is a quality education experience and access for our students.” One-time federal stimulus funding reduced the 17 percent budget cut by about half, says Millner adding that the stimulus money allowed the university to spread the legislative cuts over two years. “We’re grateful for that, but by July 2010 we will have taken a 17 percent cut in our state tax budget.” Such budget cuts have affected students’ access to courses, Millner says. And though the university has had only minor layoffs, there are not enough teachers and resources to meet the increased demand. “We would probably have more students at Weber State this semester if we were able to open more sessions of classes. But given the resources we have, it was beyond our ability to add classes.” Despite a resource shortage, Millner says students are still receiving the quality education they deserve. “Our goal is to give students the best university experience that we can. Our faculty and staff have really stepped up in this environment to meet the needs of our students.” Though Weber plans to deal with budget cuts on a short-term basis—through decreases in adjunct faculty pay, minor layoffs and reductions in various student services—Millner fears that long-term funding reductions will be of lasting detriment to Utah’s economy. “We realize that we, along with everybody else in state government, have to tighten our belts. But at the same time, we need to look for creative ways to make sure that we’re focused on public and higher education as the critical element that will bring us out of these difficult times,” she says. “Our institutions play a very important role in the workforce development, research and commercialization that supports economic growth and improves quality of life in our communities. We aren’t going to be able to compete as a state if we don’t take a long-term view before making cuts that have long-term implications.” Rays of Light Like Weber, the University of Utah is experiencing budget reductions. To free up dollars, U of U President Michael Young says the university looked at ways to increase resource efficiency. The school implemented a cogeneration plant that uses natural gas to produce most of the high temperature water for the lower part of campus. The system also recaptures enough heat from the process to generate about 20 percent of the electricity. By xeriscaping and watering with computer-based ground monitoring systems, the university has also cut watering costs by about 30 percent. Even with the fuel and water savings, though, the U cut nearly 350 positions and raised tuition fees. “While no one was crazy about tuition increases, everyone understood it was necessary for the preservation of the quality of the education,” Young says. Class sizes have increased and Young worries that it will take students longer to graduate if this trend continues. Despite the budget cuts, there is also positive financial news at the university. “We’re actually in a schizophrenic mode right now,” says Young. “There is a significant decrease in state support but there is also a dramatic increase in external research funding.” Because these research grants (totaling around $400 million) are awarded for specific projects, they cannot be used to make up for state budget shortcomings. This creates an interesting dilemma for Young. “On the one hand I have to figure out whom to lay off, and on the other I’m figuring out how to shoehorn in more researchers and professors to deal with these grants.” The grants apply to research ranging from bioengineering to alternative fuel sources. The university recently received a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop prosthetic limbs. Instead of being attached to the stump, these prosthetics are inserted into the bone structure via titanium rods and receive electrical signals sent from the brain. Though the grants operate independently from state budgets, they can’t happen without state dollars. “Those grants come in because we have a base that is funded by the state that pays the basic salary of the professors that seek those grants,” Young explains. “If the state money dries up and I have to let that professor go, I lose that research funding. I could name five professors, who if we were to lose, [would result in a loss] of a quarter of a billion dollars in grants over the course of their careers. That’s money that comes into the state and is spent in the state. The grants don’t keep the professors here; the state’s funding keeps those professors here.” Through research at the university, ideas become real-world innovation. “We’ve been increasingly able to take this technology and put it into the lives of people by creating businesses that sell and market it,” Young says. “[In the past], we were commercializing about three businesses a year. In the last three years, we’ve created almost 90 businesses.” About a quarter of those businesses are now in the second or third stage of venture capital funding, bringing in about $170 million of venture capital, with nearly 85 percent of that amount coming from outside of the state. “[These businesses] employ people and create good, high paying jobs. It’s a real ray of light.” Doing Things Differently While the U is busy creating new jobs, Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) is helping the unemployed. “There is no better time for the state to understand the open-access role of the community college than right now,” says SLCC President Cynthia Bioteau. “If you go to your job this morning or this afternoon and [receive] a pink slip, you can start classes at SLCC on Monday. That’s pretty remarkable.” Because of its open access and slightly lower tuition fees, SLCC is also experiencing unprecedented growth. “This fall we’re teaching more than 3,400 more students than we had last year. Our increase in enrollment is like adding a Snow College to this campus,” Bioteau says. Fortunately, the college saw the surge coming. “As soon as spring semester ended, we began to recruit adjunct faculty.” Using stimulus dollars to add more than 200 new instructors was not the only step the college took to prepare for the increased enrollment. “We looked at what we already have—14 campuses and an online delivery system—and asked ourselves how we could do things more creatively,” explains Bioteau. “We looked at how we could schedule classes differently. We now schedule classes from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week. We increased online classes by more than 27 percent. We bundled our courses so a student taking a particular program can come to a campus and get all of their courses in segments. They might come Monday and Wednesday, Tuesday and Thursday, or Friday and Saturday, but they don’t have to come five days a week.” Despite the preparations, class sizes have increased, financial aid counselors are busier and parking lots are overflowing. Bioteau says that all of her faculty and staff have done an amazing job at shouldering the extra burden, but there is not much more they can do without additional funding. “If any more cuts come, we will have to close programs and cap enrollment, both of which are counterintuitive to the mission of a community college.” She says the college is constantly working with the state legislature to restore funding. While Bioteau acknowledges more students create a challenge for institutions today, she feels that it will be a huge future benefit for the state. “Here’s the silver lining that I see for Utah’s economic recovery: When we recover, and we will, we will recover with a more educated and higher skilled workforce than we had a year ago. People have realized that higher education, training and education after high school is a necessity to survive.”
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