SALT LAKE CITY — The Senate Education Confirmation Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend the confirmations of David Buhler as commissioner of higher education and Marlin Jensen as a member of the State Board of Regents.
Both Buhler and Jensen, speaking before the committee, expressed their support for Gov. Gary Herbert's Prosperity 2020 goal of 66 percent of Utah's adults holding some form of postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020. Utah is currently at between 42 percent and 43 percent.
Buhler said the key to achieving that goal is keeping education in Utah affordable and accessible. He said his four key principles for approaching higher education as commissioner are focus, innovation, credibility and unity within the higher education system.
"It's important that while each individual institution has their own mission and their own set of issues and their own challenges and opportunities, that as a system we work together for the good of the state," he said.
Jensen served as a general authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1989. He began his remarks by joking about his recent emeritus status and talking about his experience on the Weber County Board of Education.
"I'm a 70-year-old man, recently unemployed," he said. "I've had a good brush and exposure to secondary education and am looking forward to learning more and trying to make some contribution."
Committee members had relatively few questions for the two candidates and instead used the time to discuss their concerns and goals for education in Utah.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, spoke about "degrees to nowhere" and expressed that Utah has a shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — degree-holders. He said students need to be aware of the realistic job and salary possibilities of their chosen fields of study.
Stephenson said that he doesn't believe any particular degree is a degree to nowhere, but students need to be aware that not all degrees are created equal.
"Students who make those choices for post-secondary training should do it with their eyes wide open," he said.
He also suggested that STEM degrees should cost less in order to provide an incentive to students, instead of the traditional added costs that those programs carry.
"If they knew that their lifetime earnings would be double if they took a STEM degree, they might be inclined to take a STEM degree," Stephenson said. "We ought to give more of a subsidy to those degrees we actually need as opposed to some degrees we don't need in our economy."
Buhler agreed that students need to be made fully aware of their options and the likelihood of securing a job in their chosen career, but also said that a college or university education in any field is a benefit.
"It's very clear that any degree is better than no degree, on average," Buhler said.
Committee Chair Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, spoke about the connection between public education and higher education, specifically the training of public school educators. He said that approximately 38 percent of teachers who enter the profession leave within three to five years and asked what could be done about the training students receive on incorporating technology into the classroom.
"How do we attract people into this profession? How do we prepare them so they're really prepared for the digital learning environment?" Osmond asked. "There are some schools where students have less access to technology than they do in their own home."
Buhler said that Utah's schools do a good job of training new teachers, but reiterated the need for innovation in education.
"We can never be satisfied," he said. "We always need to do better."
After the meeting, Buhler said the greatest challenge facing higher education in Utah is the need for college to be affordable and accessible. He said that for both cost of tuition and the amount of debt accrued by student, Utah is in considerably better shape than many other states.
"We've just got to keep up," he said. "Today's students don't learn like they used to."
Jensen spoke about the need for greater rigor in academic programs and a greater number of degree-holders in the state.
"We need more people in higher ed making more strategic choices about their careers," he said.
Prior to the committee's vote, Utah State Board of Regents chair Bonnie Jean Beesley expressed her endorsement for both Jensen and Buhler and told committee members that the men would work to strengthen education's contribution to a thriving economy, thriving democracy and high quality of life in the state.
"We had a long list of candidates," she said. "We had very many high-quality candidates and it was actually a fiercely competitive pool."
The nominations of both Buhler and Jensen will go before the Senate Wednesday for confirmation.