ST. GEORGE — Less than four years ago, Dixie State College was shrinking. Officials bemoaned a lack of bachelor's degree programs as the number of students declined two years in a row.
Now, as it celebrates its 100th anniversary with exploding enrollment and the addition of several new four-year degrees, Dixie State is on an upward trajectory that could make it a university, offering graduate programs in as soon as three years.
College leaders will present a plan today to the state Board of Regents that would expand Dixie State into a regional university role similar to that of Weber State University and Utah Valley University. Conceptually, the plan to have a regional university in the north, center and south of the state fits into the Utah System of Higher Education's goal for two-thirds of Utahns to have college degrees or certificates by 2020.
Thirty percent of Washington County residents have at least an associate degree, compared to 39 percent statewide.
"The regents and our peer institutions and the community all recognize that with the growth of the population (of southern Utah), we need more trained people," Dixie State president Stephen Nadauld said in an interview. "This is just a normal kind of evolution."
But to get there, Dixie State will have to overcome several hurdles, each with its own price tag.
College officials say they would have to hire 61 full-time faculty and 50 staff and add nine new bachelor's degrees. The total tab over the next three years, including operating budgets and equipment costs, would be just under $9 million.
And the proposal comes at a time when college resources are strained by enrollment that has grown 47 percent since 2007 to almost 9,000 students.
Dixie State already crossed one major item off its list last year when legislators approved construction of the $35 million Jeffrey R. Holland Centennial Commons. Housing a library, classrooms and student services, the building will become the intellectual hub of campus when it's finished in July 2012. It will also allow old buildings, including the current library, to be retrofitted for new math and science programs.
The college plans to add four-year degrees in stages: ophthalmology technician, criminal justice, history and visual art this year; and Spanish, chemistry, geology, environmental science and social sciences in 2012. The regents will consider two new bachelor's degrees, mathematics and mathematics education, which would bring the college's total to 18.
The first graduate programs could be in education, health sciences, communication and business, Nadauld said.
Communication professor Dennis Wignall, president of Dixie State's Faculty Senate, said the move to university status is "absolutely positive" and "a distinct advantage to the school and community."
"It's a high priority to move in that direction as efficiently and effectively as we can," he said.
A long-rumored affiliation with the University of Utah is not currently being discussed, but college officials did not rule it out as a possibility.
"It's not necessarily off the table," Nadauld said. "I don't know how the state system might evolve. We're not closing any doors."
Regardless, Dixie State won't be changing its name and officially becoming a "university" anytime soon.
"You can't call it a house until it has a foundation and four walls and a roof," Nadauld said.
It may prove difficult to ask for any additional money from the state Legislature, which has signaled its intent to cut the higher education budget for the third straight year. Nadauld acknowledged it could take as long as seven years to make the transition, depending on funding.
Dixie State officials argue in a summary presented to the regents that there could be a price to waiting. They say a large software company recently decided not to move to St. George because there were not enough residents with bachelor's degrees and not enough students in the educational pipeline.
In the long run, the college plans to become the "economic engine" of the Dixie region.
"We're just growing like a weed," Nadauld said. "The bottom line is we just need to serve the people of southern Utah."