In our opinion: College completion

Published: Friday, Dec. 3 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

In October, Governor Gary Herbert's Education Excellence Commission set an ambitious goal to significantly increase the educational credentials of Utah's working population. Specifically, the commission hopes that by the year 2020, 66 percent of Utahns ages 20 to 64 will have a postsecondary degree or certificate. The reason that this is ambitious is that currently only 39 percent of Utahns hold an associate degree or higher. The reason this is seen as necessary is that the high-paying jobs of a global economy demand a more educated workforce.

But reaching that goal will depend on radically changing how Utah's colleges and universities retain and teach students rather than on simply recruiting more kids.

The Utah System of Higher Education has started to break this goal into its component parts. Eleven percent of the 66 percent would be met through postsecondary certificates. Fifty-five percent of the goal would be met with postsecondary degrees.

Currently, Utah state institutions of higher education enroll about 165,000 students. According to Utah System of Higher Education System estimates, if we were to use current enrollment and completion patterns, the only way to meet the goal of having 55 percent of working adults with an associate degree or higher would require Utah colleges to enroll an additional 109,000 students in 2020.

Consider the audacity of this number. This two-thirds enrollment growth would require registering more than twice as many students than the state expects in natural growth in the next decade. It would mean something close to doubling the current enrollments at Utah State, the University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College, Southern Utah University, and Dixie State combined. Using Lumina Foundation estimates from 2008 for direct costs associated with education at those schools — tuition plus subsidies — it would mean an additional $1.2 billion in annual higher education costs (in 2008 dollars). And this figure does not even begin to address the capital costs associated with the physical capacity problem linked to such growth.

The Utah System of Higher Education recognizes that achieving the goal of credentialed adults cannot happen by simply enrolling more students. Instead Utah must help far more of those who currently enroll in college to actually earn a college degree. Consider that the Utah two-year college with the highest graduation rate, Snow College, still only has a graduation rate of 49 percent. Instead of doubling new enrollments, educators should be thinking about what it would take to double graduates.

Improving retention and graduation will require significant effort, but there are some clear areas to address. One would be to encourage women in Utah to reclaim their historically high rates of college completion. Another would be to significantly increase the availability and subjective value of the associate degree (which, incidentally, has greater earning power than an incomplete four-year degree). But much of the work will come in streamlining graduation requirements, facilitating transfer of credit, improving the efficacy of concurrent enrollment and intensifying the use of existing physical facilities.

Having an audacious goal helps to clarify priorities. Saturating the state with college-educated adults is both worthy and audacious. But in order to afford it, educators must find efficient ways to improve retention and completion throughout the state.

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