66 by 2020: Utah has 7 years to reach college degree goal and top the nation

Published: Sunday, April 28 2013 2:45 p.m. MDT

Weber State University students leave commencement exercises in Ogden Friday, April 26, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Seven years from now, Utah will lead the nation in degree attainment.

That's the goal put forward by Gov. Gary Herbert, public and higher education officials, members of the business community and, most recently, Utah's Legislature.

The goal, commonly referred to as "66 by 2020," calls for two-thirds of all Utah adults to hold either a technical certification or college degree by the year 2020. It is intended to put Utah's workforce on firm footing for an expanding economy and to better align the state's educational outputs with the demands of the job market.

The goal is remarkable in its ambition. Roughly 43 percent of Utah’s adult population currently holds a post-secondary degree or certificate, which ranks the state near the middle of the country in terms of degree attainment by state, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Achieving the 66 percent goal would require a roughly 50 percent increase in degree attainment over the next seven years, and would be an education marker no other state has achieved.

“Going from 43 percent up to something above 60 percent,' “I would label that as a pretty ambitious goal,” said Richard Fry, a senior research associate for the Pew Research Center.

Fry said that the wording of the goal allows Utah some statistical leeway by including technical certifications, which are not tracked nationally to the same extent as two-year, four-year and professional degrees.

The census bureau does not typically delineate the number of certificate holders in a state, but in terms of the percentage of adults with an associate's degree or higher, Washington, D.C. ranks first with 55.3 percent and West Virginia ranks last with 24.9 percent.

Should Utah reach it's goal of 66 percent by the year 2020, and assuming no dramatic changes in the rest of the country, the state would be among the most educated in the nation.

The question now: Is it doable and what must happen each year to get to 66 percent?

Diverse population growing

Officials with the Utah Governor's Office say the goal is possible and point to economic and demographic projections that show a steady increase between now and 2020 in the number of Utahns turning 18 each year.

"It's absolutely doable," said Christine Kearl, Gov. Gary Herbert's Education Director. "We have the population to accomplish the 66 percent goal but it's not going to come without some effort."

At the time of the 2010 census, there were 676,460 degree- and certificate-holders in the state, according to figures provided by the governor's office. Before the next census in 2020, officials expect to have added 411,240 degrees and certificates to the adult population, with the greatest gains being made in the number of four-year bachelors degrees and post-secondary certifications.

"Is it going to be challenging? Of course it is," David Buhler, Utah commissioner of higher education, said. "It is a big goal. It’s something that will help our state economically in the future if we have a more highly-educated workforce."

Beyond the challenge of simply increasing the number of students in Utah schools, Fry said the state will also need to swim against the current of changing demographics.

Last year, the United States crossed a historical threshold, Fry said, with more than one-third of all adults ages 25 to 29 having completed a four-year college degree. The numbers were also at record levels among most demographic groups, including 23 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Hispanics.

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