Students have until next Friday to sign their names to a petition asking the Utah State Legislature to put education first when they convene for the next legislative session in January.
“If (the legislature) wants the economy to come first in our state, then education has to come first,” said Kyle Braithwaite, Weber State University’s student body president. “The state really should feel obliged and obligated to pay for a good 60 percent of the tuition, 65 percent in order for more students to get the higher education they need.”
The signature drive is one of the first initiatives of Education First, a statewide, political-action committee organized to empower students by engaging them in the political process. The drive’s goal is to collect and submit 20,000 student signatures to the legislature by Nov. 4. The WSU Student Association’s goal is to account for 5,000 of those signatures. Braithwaite estimated WSU has 1,900 signatures after nearly two weeks of collecting. However, the first week, they couldn’t collect as quickly because they were still organizing and planning for the drive, Braithwaite said. The committee says it is dedicated to “securing the economic future of (Utah)” by pressuring lawmakers to put education first.
“As students, we need to recognize the reality that, traditionally, policymakers don’t take us seriously,” said David Smith, a University of Utah student who acts as a student representative on the state’s Board of Regents. “It’s because we don’t vote. But also, policymakers don’t traditionally see us as out there and activating in a meaningful way to defend ourselves.”
However, Melvin Brown, a Republican representative from Coalville, Utah, and the appropriations chairman of the legislature, said it wasn’t lack of activity that prompted him to recommend cuts to higher education.
“The revenue has not been equal to the request of demand, and so the only option is to cut or increase taxes,” Brown said, adding that the legislature has always prioritized public and higher education, even though the recession has demanded cuts in recent years.
Brown did say public education has an advantage over higher education, because higher education has another revenue source.
“It’s called tuition,” Brown said. “They use it.”
With tuition hikes and less funding per student, students now pay 48 percent of the cost of their education statewide compared to 28 percent of the cost in 2000, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.
“There’s a shift of cost that’s being put on the backs of students,” Smith said. “Certainly that’s a result of the recession and the decrease in state revenues, but also, it’s kind of a lack of priority.”
The lack of priority doesn’t necessarily show in the total budget appropriated to WSU, which has increased by more than $13 million, or 11 percent, since the 2006-07 school year. However, in the same period, state tax funds per WSU student have dropped by about $800 annually, or 15 percent per student. In essence, budget increases have not kept up with an enrollment growth of about 7,000 students in a five-year period. The drop in funding per student not only stems from the recession, but also lawmakers’ decision to cut higher education as a percent of the state budget by 1.2 percent since 2002, according to a report from USHE, one of several sponsors of Education First.
“The cuts being made at higher education are cutting into the muscle of our organizations,” Braithwaite said. “We are literally requiring students to go longer, an extra semester or two, because they couldn’t get into courses that are being offered or that are full.”