How Gov. Cox’s proposed statewide tuition freeze could affect SUU

Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox held his monthly news conference last week on Thursday, Oct. 20, to address key issues in the state. One of the most impactful statements of the night was when Cox stated that he was working on a tuition freeze proposal for next year.

“Being the best of a broken system isn’t helping anybody,” Cox said. “But, you know what would help people? A tuition freeze. If you’re looking for a headline or something to write, that’s something that I will be proposing.”

If a freeze were to be implemented, Utah universities and colleges would be unable to raise tuition prices.

Differing from other institutions within the state, Southern Utah University has been the only university to not raise tuition for the past four years.

Marvin Dodge, SUU’s vice president of finance and administration, says that, because SUU has been able to survive for multiple years without raising tuition, other Utah institutions can do the same.

“The fact that we haven’t raised tuition has made a statement to the rest of the system that it can be done,” Dodge said. “You can survive without raising tuition.”

Dodge also mentioned that the tuition costs have stayed the same at SUU due to a policy enacted in 2018.

“We’ve had four years under a new regent tuition policy that allows us to do no raises, no increase or propose whatever the institution wants,” Dodge said.

Before the most recent policy was implemented, there was a two-tiered tuition system that left tuition increases partially up to the state to decide.

“There was the first-tier tuition increase,” Dodge said. “That was set by the commissioner’s office, and it was mandatory for all of the degree-granting institutions to implement.”

The second-tier tuition increase was entirely up to the universities to decide what fit. SUU chose to never implement the second tier and only raised tuition according to the state’s guidelines.

“It’s worth noting that, for the last eight years, when we’ve had the opportunity to raise tuition, we only did it when it was mandatory,” Dodge said.

Granted, the lack of tuition increases has reduced the university’s spending, but, according to Dodge, the last four years have proven that a university can function this way.

According to the current Utah higher education funding policy, university employees are considered to be state employees, as well. Therefore, Utah authorizes a set percentage each year where they adjust the cost of living expenses to help university employees.

Three-quarters of the annual compensation adjustments for university staff are covered by taxpayer funding. However, the universities must cover the remaining 25% themselves, which is the main reason why many universities raise their tuition costs.

SUU has absorbed the 25% themselves for the past four years, and Dodge is questioning whether this will be the format of the proposed tuition freeze or whether Gov. Cox has a different plan in mind.

“Part of what we’re looking for from the governor’s office is the matter of whether the institutions are going to have to absorb the 25% match, which we have done for the last four years, or will the legislature propose that the compensation adjustment will be funded 100% by the state legislature,” Dodge said.

While he abstained from speaking for the university and President Mindy Benson, Dodge predicted that more of the same would be expected if a tuition freeze was put into effect.

“If [Gov. Cox] pushes to implement a freeze on tuition at all of the institutions, I certainly anticipate that SUU would freeze tuition again like we’ve done the last four years,” Dodge said.

Dodge also discussed that student fees could still change based on university projects as they have in recent years. Such projects have included the on-campus student health center, which is currently in its final stages of development.

This project added a total of $32 to student fees, which was split over two semesters. However, according to Dodge, when it is completed, students will not need to pay to use the clinic, as it will be paid for as a part of their general student fees.

For now, SUU has to wait for Gov. Cox’s proposal to be brought before the legislature to decide their next course of action.

Story by: Luke McKenzie
Photo by: Andrea Rodgers