In recent years, several of Utah's public two-year colleges have become four-year universities, sharply bucking a national trend toward increasing the number of institutions specializing in associate's degrees and professional certifications. The trend carries some significant implications, not the least of which has to do with the overall costs of higher education.

An analysis by the Deseret News shows that the ratio of universities to colleges in Utah is 4-1, while nationally that ratio is roughly 1-3. In 1990, there were seven two-year public colleges in Utah; now there are two — Salt Lake Community College and Snow College in Ephraim. Education experts are questioning whether this trend is acting to discourage students who may best be served by a two-year degree to instead pursue more costly degrees from four-year institutions.

Utah's trend to invert its higher education structure does not appear to be the result of a deliberate agenda, but rather the isolated decisions by two-year institutions — with the assent of the state's higher education authorities — that they had grown enough to justify four-year status, and that such status would better serve their respective communities. Such was the case in Orem, with Utah Valley State College — now Utah Valley University, and in St. George, with Dixie State College — now Dixie State University.

It was a trend noticed by Salt Lake Community College President Cynthia Bioteau before moving here to take the helm of the state's largest two-year institution. "I saw from afar that Utah, through their actions and through their funding allocations, whether they were conscious of it or not, was doing away with or losing the niche that community colleges provide in workforce and economic development," Bioteau told the Deseret News.

It is difficult to assess the future economic and employment impacts of the trend, but Bioteau points out that it has occurred in something of a policy vacuum. Decisions to grant four-year status to five separate institutions in recent decades have been made on a case-by-case basis, not apparently in the context of any kind of master plan for higher education that included an assessment of the overall needs of the state's workforce and those who would fill it.

There is evidence the trend has indeed shifted the cost spectrum, effectively reversing the notion that a two-year college degree is relatively less expensive in Utah than a four-year degree. According to data compiled by the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, the costs of community college education in Utah are higher than the average costs for comparable education across the U.S., while costs at Utah's four-year institutions remain significantly below the national average.

The price of a two-year degree is still lower than that of a four-year degree, but the gap is narrowing in Utah. And although many four-year institutions remain committed to offering two-year Associate's Degrees and professional certifications, they are doing so within the cost and governance structure of the inherently more expensive four-year institution.

Students seeking employment and employers seeking skilled workers should be concerned that this shift has occurred outside the umbrella of any clear long-term policy because it relegates any future impact on the economy and workforce to the category of unintended consequences. It would be wise for education and policy leaders to take a hard look at this trend to determine if it is indeed the best direction for the state's overall system of higher education, and the ambitious goal of saturating the state's workforce with certified and credentialed employees.