Guest editorial: Let's do what is best for the community
Recent discussions about a possible merger between the College of Eastern Utah and Utah State University have fueled some inaccurate rumors, reports and speculations that I would like to put to rest.
Foremost among these have been comments or aspersions that have suggested improper motives on the part of some of our local legislative delegation, including Senator Mike Dmitrich and Representative Brad King, or on the part of our colleagues at Utah State University, including President Stan Albrecht and his staff. I want to make my position very clear with respect to these dedicated and supportive individuals. I know of no one who has approached this issue from the legislature or from Utah State University who has not done so from the very best of motives. Our legislative representatives are extraordinary allies of the college and my close personal friends. I have never spoken with any of them about the college or any other matter when I have not been met with whole-hearted support.
The desire of the legislature to review this issue was prompted by a desire to help the residents of Southeastern Utah. Similarly, our colleagues at Utah State University have been remarkable partners and stalwart friends of the College of Eastern Utah throughout my tenure as president. There are few men I respect as much as President Stan Albrecht. He has been a teacher, friend and mentor of mine for over three decades. Every discussion I have engaged in with Utah State University has been premised upon finding new opportunities and benefits for the people within our service area.
While any change is difficult, I would hope that the community would be measured in considering the possibilities that might result from a realignment of CEU within the Utah system of higher education. As I have recounted in every public discussion that I have participated in on this issue, there are several states including California, Washington, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Arkansas that have very successful multi-campus university systems. A merger of a community college into a university system can be unsuccessful. For example, states, such as Montana, that have attempted to create a merged system primarily for economic reasons, have had very limited results. However, others, like Arkansas, that have created a merged university system to increase access for advanced degrees in rural areas, have had remarkable successes.
Some have suggested that a merger is a necessity for CEU because of its fiscal or enrollment challenges. Again, I want to be very clear. The college, as I will detail more fully below, is in better fiscal condition at this time than it has been for over a decade. If we consider a merger, it should be to gain access to increased educational opportunities, not to ensure the fiscal viability of the college. Increased numbers of community members with bachelor's degrees or advanced degrees, could be an important addition to our local economic development efforts. However, care would need to be taken to ensure that any change that might occur would continue low tuition costs, applied technology programs and the kind of community involvement that are characteristic of a community college.
I have heard some speculate that the college's improved financial condition is solely a result of the legislative appropriation last year that paid off the residence halls. As was the case for Utah State University-Uintah Basin and Dixie State College that received similar allocations last year, the payoff of amortized capital debt was gratefully received by the college, but did not fundamentally change the annual operating budget of the institution. The College of Eastern Utah has incrementally reduced accumulated operating deficits each of the past six years. It currently has an operating surplus and a modest annual carry forward (retained earnings).
The credit enrollments of CEU have declined in recent years, paralleling the decline in college-age population in our region. During the same period, non-credit enrollments, which typically involve working adults in short-term applied technology programs rather than degree-seeking recent high school graduates, have increased substantially. Unfortunately, the higher education system in Utah does not have a standardized way of reporting non-credit enrollments, so these are not included in annual enrollment reports. A significant part of the budgetary planning of the college through the past several years has involved "right sizing" the institution to ensure that we were not projecting enrollments that the demographic data did not support. Our budgets are based upon conservative projections of enrollment. Consequently, our fiscal viability has remained strong, even in the face of challenging local population trends.
We are anxious to increase out-of-area enrollments. These students bring additional revenue to the communities that we serve and can offset the total number of local college-age students. However, the typical out-of-area student requires some financial assistance to come to the college. Like our sister rural community college, Snow College, that experienced a significant drop in out-of-area enrollments this year when they reduced their scholarship spending to match their budget, CEU has been limited in attracting such students because the available scholarship dollars are not sufficient to support all of the students that we would like to attract. We have recently increased our marketing and recruiting budgets to try to enhance our attractiveness to out-of-area students, but will likely always struggle to find adequate scholarship dollars to fund all of the out-of-area students who might benefit from the CEU experience.
I encourage community members, like their parents and grandparents who developed our Price and Blanding campuses, to help us consider how we can best serve the citizens of our region. Rather than spending time and energy propagating unfounded speculation and rumors, please join with us in moving forward in strength. We have a strong foundation to build on and a bright future, if we can together envision and develop the kind of college that will continue to successfully serve our children and grandchildren.