U. President David Pershing says access and excellence are his top priorities

Published: Monday, Dec. 9 2013 4:30 p.m. MST

Ivory said it's necessary for all of Utah's public schools — particularly the U. — to increase graduation rates in order for the state to reach its goal of having two-thirds of adults holding a degree or certification by 2020.

"The focus has moved to a real focus on not only helping graduation, but helping students succeed beyond graduation," he said.

But without increased investment in higher education by the state, Ivory said, Utah's schools have had to "take turns getting a piece" of new education dollars.

Ivory mentioned Utah's public transportation initiatives, which frequently compete with education for state funding, and said the level of investment that has gone into physically moving the state's residents should also be applied to training the state's workforce.

"We’ve taken care of transportation here," he said. "Why haven’t we damn well taken care of education in the same way?"

Ivory said Utah's demographics create a unique advantage for the state, with large families contributing to population growth. By investing in education, he said, that advantage is potentially doubled in terms of creating a healthy, vibrant economy.

"The real question becomes, ‘What will we do with those kids?'" he said. "Will we turn them into an incredibly productive and educated workforce? Or will they be a mediocre workforce?"

Pershing said the state's unique family demographics extend to college campuses as well. Of the 2013 University of Utah graduating class, just under one-half were married, and 1 of 4 graduating students was a parent.

"That’s not typically of a research university at all," he said.

That family dynamic contributes in part to the large gender gap among Utah's degree earners, as many women choose to suspend or halt their education in favor of being at home with their children.

Other students fail to complete their degrees due to the costs associated with higher learning, Pershing said, which has led to officials at the U. developing the U Futures Scholarship Fund for returning students.

"The idea is that often the problem is financial. It is not lack of will. It’s not even lack of ability. It’s financial," Pershing said. "We have each year been bringing back these students. We contact them and encourage them to come back and finish, and that is working."

Pershing said that joining the Pac-12 has helped the University of Utah attract top faculty members, as well as resulted in an increase in out-of-state student recruitment.

Being part of the Pac-12 means the school competes in a tough athletic league, he said, but it also places the University of Utah in an academic sphere that includes Stanford and UC Berkeley.

"We are adding students from the Pac-12 states, but not at the expense of Utah students," Pershing said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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