How should US states organize their higher education systems?

About a decade ago, the late Kermit Hall, then president of Utah State University, complained to lawmakers that the Legislature’s system of funding higher education encouraged schools to grow — regardless of what makes sense for the state and students.

But members of the state Board of Regents are proposing to change what many see as a flawed model for distributing tax dollars to Utah’s eight public colleges and universities, replacing the enrollment-growth model with one that recognizes each school’s mission and the contribution it makes.

Such a system would ensure stable-enrollment schools like Southern Utah University and the University of Utah get a fair cut once the Legislature has more tax revenue to invest in education.

“If we are a system of higher education as opposed to a compilation of institutions, then the institutions should do different things,” said Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George. And that means funding based on factors other than bodies on campus. The Washington County Republican, whose district includes high-growth Dixie State College, intends to sponsor legislation to change the formula. Urquhart has the support of Regents, who convened a task force last spring to explore the role of mission in an overhauled funding model.

During the recession, enrollment at Dixie, Utah Valley and Weber State universities and Salt Lake Community College exploded. Under the current model, they could monopolize new appropriations, leaving the state’s research flagship and other selective-admission schools out in the cold.

“Southern Utah University is a jewel in our system. It’s trying to be our stand-alone liberal arts institution. It’s tough to make that move under the way we currently fund our institutions,” said Urquhart, a graduate of Williams College in rural Massachusetts. “[SUU] is not going to have huge growth like here at Dixie and UVU. In that case, we need to fund excellence.”

If I were a Utah tax payer, I would hate to have my money spent subsidizing a new liberal arts college.

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