Are Utah's colleges and universities fulfilling their mission?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 18 2013 10:15 a.m. MDT

Students looking to enroll in classes and seeking financial aid line up Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In 1990, Utah operated nine public institutions of higher education, seven of which were two-year colleges.

Today, all but two of those colleges have become four-year universities, with Dixie State University the latest to receive university status with a bill signed into law in February.

The change was touted as a way to meet the educational needs of the state's southern region, with Dixie joining a network of regional schools that includes Utah Valley University in Orem and Weber State University in Ogden designed with a dual-mission that maintains open enrollment policies and provides two- and four-year degrees simultaneously.

But with Salt Lake Community College in Utah's capital and Snow College in Ephraim the lone two-year public colleges, some are asking if the state's push for four-year universities is making it more costly and difficult for students to receive associate degrees and professional certificates.

"As time goes on, I predict that we’re going to see a need for community college access," said Cynthia Bioteau, president of Salt Lake Community College.

In North Carolina, where Bioteau worked prior to joining SLCC nine years ago, there are 58 individual community colleges and 17 public universities.

That type of pyramidal structure is common in most states and is effectively the inverse of Utah's higher education system, where universities now outnumber colleges on a 4-to-1 ratio.

"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 said of her decision to relocate to Salt Lake City.

Are the focus and financial attention that four-year schools demand taking away from educating students trying to get into the workforce with certificates and two-year degrees? And just what do Utah employers need?

Salt Lake Community College

In terms of both enrollment and geography, SLCC is a large school. Its 13 locations — consisting of six major campuses and seven satellite locations — stretch from the Salt Lake City International Airport to 9800 South in Sandy.

Last fall, 30,112 students were enrolled at the third week of the semester, the third-largest headcount of Utah's public institutions. But because SLCC students often do not take classes sequentially and are prone to scheduling gaps, school officials estimate the number of students is closer to 60,000.

A study released in September by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that 43 percent of Utah students who earned four-year degrees during the 2010-11 school year had previously enrolled at a two-year school, in line with the national average of 45 percent.

"We are such an important pipeline to our university sisters that currently 64 percent of our students come to our college so they can transfer to the university," Bioteau said. "Our role as career and technical educator and pipeline to the university is critical now more than it has ever been."

But SLCC does more than just transfer students. For the past five years, the school has ranked in the top five associate-degree producing schools in the country by Community College Week, reaching third place last year.

"It says we care just as much about welcoming you as we care about completing and having you complete your goals," Bioteau said.

Utah's Snow College, which enrolls roughly 4,500 students, also consistently ranks among the top 10 junior colleges in the country, including being ranked No. 6 by CNN Money in 2012.

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