SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal by a Utah lawmaker would offer tuition incentives for completing a bachelor's degree in four years and potentially cover the cost of tuition if a student is forced to enroll for more than eight semesters.
The proposal by Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, would make colleges and universities responsible for graduating students after 120 credit hours by creating degree "maps" in each major.
If a student sticks to the map, Urquhart said, they would be guaranteed a tuition increase of no more than 2 percent each year, as well as potentially free enrollment if scheduling issues at the college or university prevent them from completing their degree.
"They would have to take courses that belong to the map," he said, "and as long as they do, as long as they pass the courses, that student will graduate in eight semesters. And again if they don’t, the institution is going to pick up the cost for that."
The map program is part of a larger effort by Urquhart to reform the way higher education is funded by shifting the incentive away from accepting large numbers of incoming students to instead rewarding institutions for their success at producing skilled graduates.
"We’ve funded warm bodies walking through the door, and as a result we have a lot of folks entering our colleges," he said. "We don’t have a lot of folks completing our colleges."
During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers approved $50 million in equity funding for higher education, which was used to correct funding disparities that had occurred as a result of rapid growth at the state's open-enrollment institutions.
That funding largely bypassed the University of Utah and Utah State University but established a relatively level funding floor for undergraduate education in the state, which Urquhart said provides an opportunity to look at the way the state invests in higher education.
"It makes sense while the institutions are level to put in a funding formula so that we don’t get so out of whack once again," he said.
An effective funding formula needs to address both institutional growth and institutional excellence, Urquhart said, to ensure innovation and research are not sacrificed in the name of increased freshman enrollment.
"Our system will only be as good as our two research institutions," he said, referring to the University of Utah and USU. "They need to be doing great work, and that greatness will trickle down to our other institutions, which are doing very important, primarily undergraduate, work."
Urquhart was asked by lawmakers how his map proposal would account for students who enter college intending to study one subject but later switch majors as their interests evolve.
He said students would continue to be free to explore different fields, but they would lose out on some of the benefits provided to their peers who commit to a major and work toward completion of their degree.
"Under this map program, some students will want to wander," Urquhart said. "That’s fine. They can do that. But then they’re off the map, so they don’t get the same guarantees the map students get."
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, questioned whether making schools responsible for a student's success would lead to a tightening of admission criteria and a loss of academic opportunities for individuals who were not exemplary in high school.
"I had to go through some academic repentance. As I matured, I realized the importance of education," Gibson said. "Are we going to take a chance on a student who may not have a sexy report card?"
Urquhart emphasized that his intent is not to do away with open enrollment schools in the state, but that students need to understand there is an expectation to perform in higher education.
He pointed to recent changes at Utah Valley University known as "structured enrollment" that require underperforming students to meet regularly with advisers and complete remedial courses before moving on in their schedule.
The university has also moved up its deadlines for applying and registering for classes, as well as the date that students are purged from course rolls for not paying tuition.
Urquhart said those reforms have already resulted in a front-end weeding out of students who are less serious about their education.
"They’re starting fewer students, but they’re completing, at the end of the semester, the same (number of) students they always have," he said.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said he was encouraged by Urquhart's plan and that the state has historically taken a funding approach toward higher education that is counterproductive.
In some cases, it could benefit students for Utah's colleges and universities to be more selective in their admissions process, Reid said.
"Open enrollment, in many ways, is an enemy to excellence," he said. "While I believe there should be a place for every student if they choose to go to college, they should be able to do that with qualifications, and that message needs to get down to the high school level so they are fully prepared. They can’t just fool around in high school and walk into a university."
Urquhart said lawmakers are able to provide the incentives, but he would prefer to leave the specifics of how the map program would be administered to the state's higher education community.
Utah's college and university leaders have the expertise to solve the issue of low degree attainment in 30 or 40 years, Urquhart said, but it's the job of lawmakers to get them to a solution in three or four years.
"I think that will force some very difficult conversations," he said. "If (lawmakers) jumped into that detail, we would mess it up. Let’s not kid ourselves."
David Buhler, commissioner of higher education, said the creation of degree maps is among the goals school officials have for increasing graduation rates.
The idea of creating a contract between school and student is promising, Buhler said, adding that his staff is open to discussing the proposal with Urquhart and other interested parties.
"The concept is one we're certainly open to," he said. "We'd need to work out the details."