Are Utah's colleges and universities fulfilling their mission?

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

Academic research shows that two-year schools nationwide are instrumental in preparing a broad student base to complete a four-year university education. In Utah, SLCC enrolls the most diverse student body of any public school, with the percentage of Asian, black, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students topping the overall averages for the Utah System of Higher Education.

In the fall of 2012, 12 percent of SLCC students were Hispanic, compared with 8 percent in public schools statewide. By comparison, dual-mission regional universities Utah Valley University and Weber State had minority numbers closer in line with the state average, with Hispanic students making up 9.2 percent and 8.3 percent of the student body, respectively.

"We have been aware of the changing demographics of Utah far, far sooner than the rest of the state because of our open access invitation to students," Bioteau said. "We are the most diverse institution of higher ed in the state, and we pride ourselves on that. We have college-wide inclusivity conversations with students and our staff on how can we be more welcoming to diversity."

Dave Buhler, Utah's commissioner of higher education, said SLCC's racial and ethnic diversity can be partly attributed to the location of its campuses in the state's urban center. But he said that community colleges both nationwide and in Utah play an important role offering educational access to a student body that is ethnically, economically and situationally diverse.

"It’s a place of great opportunity for people where they can come, almost regardless of what they did in high school, and get the skills and education they need to improve their lives," Buhler said.

Joy Tlou, spokesman for SLCC, described the work of community colleges as being a "facilitator."

"We are the completion refinery for so many students," he said. "They come here to refine their skills and their experiences so they can meet their educational goals."

Buhler said there is a perception that when a school transitions to a four-year university it ceases to award certificates and associate degrees. But the graduation numbers at Weber State and Utah Valley suggest otherwise, he said, with both schools awarding thousands of associate degrees each year.

This year, Weber State University awarded 1,936 associate degrees compared with 1,974 bachelor's degrees and 181 master's degrees.

"This model works well for our state because it’s a money saver to have the dual missions under one roof," Buhler said. "We have in Weber, UVU and now Dixie the proof that they do both missions very well."

Allison Hess, spokeswoman for Weber State University, said the school has maintained a relatively even split between its associate and bachelor's degrees.

"Weber State is working hard to make sure we maintain that option for two-year certificates and degrees if students want them," she said.

Bioteau agreed that the dual-mission model has been succesful for the state, but she adds a caveat. She said the idea of a dual-mission school is optimistic and well-intended, but an institution with an eye toward expansion and competition at the baccalaureate level likely isn't as invested in its associate and technical programs.

"If you’re turning your institution into a university, that’s where your energy, focus and attention will be," she said.

Buhler maintained that the regional university model works for Utah, particularly considering the state's budgetary constraints. But he agreed with the sentiment of SLCC officials that their mission as a two-year school is increasingly vital as more of their peers graduate to a more advanced designation.

Buhler said associate degrees and professional certificates both contribute to Utah's workforce and the state's goal of 66 percent of adults completing a post-high school education by 2020.

"There’s plenty of work for Salt Lake Community College as a community college," he said. "I know they have no intention of changing their mission, and it would be a mistake to do it because they fulfill such an important role."

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