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Utah's governor wants a tuition freeze. Is that the best way to curb college costs?

University of Utah students walk into the Union Building on campus in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is talking about an across-the-board tuition freeze.

University of Utah students walk into the Union Building on campus in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is talking about an across-the-board tuition freeze. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has proposed an across-the-board tuition freeze for the 2023-24 academic year as a means to lower the cost of college education in Utah.

During his monthly PBS Utah press conference last week, Cox spoke out against President Joe Biden's initiative to forgive federal student loans up to certain limits. Cox said he is focused on cutting the cost of a college education by freezing tuition at Utah's state-supported colleges and universities.

Alexis Friedman, a junior at the University of Utah, said Tuesday that she would welcome a reprieve.

"Having crazy high tuition for students really impacts students' mental health more than is talked about. Financial stress is one of those things that you kind of can't really avoid. College and that time of life are already very stressful," she said.

Friedman, who is from Washington state, paid out-of-state tuition until she established Utah residency and qualified for in-state tuition rates.

She's majoring in chemical engineering, which means on top of tuition assessed to all undergraduate students at the U., she pays a tuition differential totaling about $1,000 each academic year to help offset the cost of engineering programs.

"Every single student in the College of Engineering is paying that. But I do really value my faculty so I'm kind of happy to pay that. I know that it covers lab material costs and stuff like that and we have some really great labs here," she said.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, in a statement, did not comment on Cox's proposal specifically but said, "Keeping life affordable for all Utahns, including college students, has been and will remain a top priority for the Legislature.

"We recognize many are feeling the impacts of inflation and I expect numerous policy suggestions to come forward during the upcoming legislative session to address these concerns."

Legislative appropriations typically cover 75% of the compensation increases extended to employees at state colleges and universities, leaving the system of higher education to fund the remaining 25%, primarily through tuition increases.

Earlier this year, the Utah Board of Higher Education approved tuition increases for most of the state's degree-granting universities that averaged 3.41%.

For four years running, Southern Utah University requested no tuition increase but imposed a $44 student fee hike over two semesters, which was the highest among all state institutions.

None of Utah's eight technical colleges sought tuition increases but most of their compensation costs are covered by state appropriations. The technical colleges are also overseen by the Utah Board of Higher Education.

Students work in a common space at Utah Valley University in Orem on Sept. 15.
Students work in a common space at Utah Valley University in Orem on Sept. 15. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Utah's 'reasonable' tuition

While the debate over student loan forgiveness has spurred discussion about the cost of college, tuitions assessed by Utah's degree-granting institutions are competitive with, if not lower than, peer institutions out of state.

Tuition and fees at the University of Utah, for instance, are near the lowest in its respective peer groups.

Among Pac-12 and Big 10 public universities for the 2020-21 school year, the latest data available, the U.'s tuition and fees were 22nd lowest among 23 universities.

Of schools in the Association of American Universities, made up of the nation's leading research universities, the University of Utah's tuition and fees ranked 31st lowest among 34 institutions.

University of Utah student Alexis Friedman talks with another student on campus in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is talking about an across-the-board tuition freeze.
University of Utah student Alexis Friedman talks with another student on campus in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is talking about an across-the-board tuition freeze. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Weber State University's tuition is among the lowest among peer institutions such as Boise State University, Eastern Kentucky University and Michigan's Ferris State University.

Lisa Michele Church, chairwoman of the Utah Board of Higher Education, responding to Cox's remarks in a statement, said the board evaluates tuition and fees at the state's colleges and universities each year and "its topmost concern is keeping college affordable and accessible for our students."

On top of rising college costs, college and university students are coping with the increasing cost of transportation, groceries and housing, the latter of which Friedman said is at least $800 to $1,000 a month for college students.

This year, the Utah Legislature appropriated a record $236.7 million increase in funding for the Utah System of Higher Education, including $80.3 million to support a 5.75% salary and wage increase, according to higher education board documents.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said one of the state's current challenges is meeting workforce demands.

"Every employer is looking for well-trained individuals. My priority is to find ways to educate as many individuals as possible, whether at a university, technical college or certificate program, at the lowest cost. During the 2023 general session, we will continue to look at ways to reduce costs for Utahns, including affordable tuition rates," Adams, R-Layton, said in a statement.

University of Utah students walk on campus in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is talking about an across-the-board tuition freeze.
University of Utah students walk on campus in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is talking about an across-the-board tuition freeze. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Cox was one of 22 GOP governors who in September called on Biden to immediately abandon his federal student loan forgiveness plan. The letter from the Republican Governors Association said the plan redistributes some $600 billion in student loan debt to the vast majority of taxpayers.

The Biden administration plan extended loan forgiveness up to $10,000 for individual borrowers who earn less than $125,000 annually and up to $20,000 for qualifying Pell Grant recipients.

The U.S. Department of Education had just begun processing applications for loan forgiveness when the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an administrative stay on debt discharges while it reviewed a lawsuit filed by six Republican-leaning states.

Tuition audit

A legislative audit in 2018 criticized the then-Utah State Board of Regents for "superficial review" of proposed tuition increases.

Wilson, then House Majority Leader, commented on the audit findings saying "I have seen a lot of audits in the time I've been here and this is one of the worst."

The Utah System of Higher Education implemented several reforms in the succeeding years, which have included on-campus truth-in-tuition hearings at degree-granting institutions.

That is followed by a meeting of the Utah Board of Higher Education during which each institution presents its respective proposal for tuition and fees increases and a public hearing is conducted. The board then votes whether to approve the proposed increases.

The meeting is held after the Utah Legislature has appropriated funding for the coming year.

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Marjorie Cortez

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