The more the merrier?

An emerging boom in Utah’s school-age population may make the U a more competitive and expensive school to attend in years to come.

Record numbers of students are anticipated to pour into the Utah education system, adding further pressure to the state’s already underfunded education budget.

According to Pam Perlich, senior research economist for the bureau of economic and business research at the U, projections show a boom in Utah’s school-age population over the next 15 to 20 years.

“We’re looking at an acceleration at the beginning of 2004, adding an average of about 10,000 new students each year, starting from a base of about 470,000 [students],” Perlich said. Propelling the school-age population boom, Perlich said, is Utah’s highest-in-the-nation fertility rate, coupled with an increased number of women in child-bearing years (ages 15 to 44). “The current boom is caused by our current birth pattern…not just from escalating fertility rates,” Perlich said. “They’re coming from just that many more people coming into child bearing years.”

The increase in the number of schoolchildren is likely to put the squeeze on the state’s already tight education budget, according to Perlich. She said that even after a decade of relatively flat school enrollments in the 1990s, Utah continues to rank last among all states in per-pupil funding.

While the ratio of school and college population per employed worker is expected to remain steady over the next 30 years, Perlich said the per-pupil educational costs will increase because of a basic need for more educational infrastructure, such as buildings and teachers.

“When we had the flat student enrollments in the ’90s, we weren’t building buildings. Now we [are]. Now, it’s not just operational, it’s capital. We have a flat burden per taxpayer, but we have capital expenditures we didn’t have during that flat period,” Perlich said. “And the dilemma would be if we don’t raise taxes, then higher education’s share of the pie gets smaller.”

For Utah’s higher education system, the projections make it unlikely that tuition increases will go away anytime soon, since an increasing elementary school budget impacts the state’s higher education budget.

For Utah’s universities and colleges in the year 2000, students’ tuition accounted for 27.3 percent of the cost to fund their education system.

In 2004, that number is 33.7 percent. While the state is supposed to pick up the remaining portion of that budget, however, appropriations have remained mostly flat, with little or no new money for enrollment growth and the rising costs of fuel and power.

The U is considering other options beyond tuition increases, said Paul Brinkman, associate vice president budget and planning.

Brinkman said the U, for the short term, has put in place an unofficial enrollment cap to limit expenditures due to a shortage of funding from the state Legislature.

“What happened in the political funding arena was that the state wasn’t able to pay for a lot of the growth, which was one of the reasons why the U said, ‘We can’t afford this either, we can’t continue to grow,'” Brinkman said.

Not even the U administration likes tuition increases, Brinkman said. He said that the enrollment cap has served to slightly increase the general admissions requirements for new students.

“We need to control our enrollment because the state is having trouble funding enrollment and when that happens, it puts a lot of pressure on tuition, which we didn’t like. One of the things we decided to do was raise the entrance requirements modestly for both incoming freshmen and transfer students,” Brinkman said. He said that the requirement increases were minimal and have been used to help meet the target enrollment of about 28,400 students. He said that enrollment cannot increase significantly because unlike elementary schools, institutions of higher education do not automatically receive funding based upon necessity.

“For [kindergarten through 12th grade]…when their enrollment goes up, they get more money through a formula that the state honors. Higher education is viewed a little bit differently-as more of a privilege,” Brinkman said.

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