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Friday, Dec. 19, 2014

Lawmaker's proposal would offer free tuition if student can't finish degree in 8 semesters

By Benjamin Wood, Deseret News

Published: Tue, Aug. 26 3:45 p.m. MDT

 Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, is working on legislation to create individual graduation maps for students that offer tuition incentives for graduating in four years.

Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, is working on legislation to create individual graduation maps for students that offer tuition incentives for graduating in four years.

(Shutterstock)

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."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

Recommended
1. ProudEXMO
Las Vegas, NV,
Aug. 26, 2014

I don't understand this proposal....

He says that the student would have a map to follow and if he/she stays on that map and doesn't graduate in 8 semesters they would get free tuition.

What is the scenario under which this could even occur???

How could the student follow map and not graduate in 8 semesters?

2. Fitness Freak
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

I'm afraid that the "devil would be in the details". I wouldn't trust the University to follow the spirit of the law, much less the law itself.

I have a better idea.

Why not fund the student - rather than the institution.

By this I mean: grant every graduating high school student a certain amount of "tuition vouchers" to use at WHATEVER institution he/she chooses. We need STOP all tax dollars flowing to Universities without regard to how good a job they are doing!

So......say the "tuition credit" amounted to 5k - the student would be free to spend it at a meat cutting school, a University, or a private educational institution. When the money is gone he'd be - on his own.

This concept would FORCE the public institutions to compete with, not only other Universities, but, also private ones. Public institutions would be forced with compete not only academically, but cost-wise as well.

Public Universities have gotten more than "fat and happy" over the years. Isn't it time we STOPPED funding them whether they do a good job - or not?

3. Howard Beal
Provo, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

Two ways to go with this:

1) This is a stupid proposal

2) Right idea but all college should be paid for like they do in many countries...

4. humbug
Syracuse/Davis, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

The only way to graduate in 8 semesters is to take at least 16 hours of credit per semester. Most kids who are working are not able to take this many hours. So this program will mostly benefit kids who come from wealthy families and thus don't have to work much.

5. DN Subscriber
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

Let's provide incentives to graduate in 4 yours by making the cost per credit hour $x for the first four years of undergraduate classes, and $x +$100 for each credit hour of undergraduate work taken in the fifth or later year. Otherwise, you have no incentive for "career students" to ever get done with school and get a real job.

Change that to the base price for the first however many hours it takes to graduate if you want to allow for folks who cannot take a full course load, and then bump it up after they have taken the equivalent of enough hours for a bachelor's degree.