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

Published: Monday, Dec. 9 2013 4:33 p.m. MST

University of Utah President David Pershing said providing students with access and excellence in education continue to be his top priorities as the university moves forward on a number of initiatives.

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Since being named president of the University of Utah in 2012, David Pershing has trumpeted a focus on undergraduate education and student success.

On Monday, Pershing said providing students with access and excellence in education continue to be his top priorities as the university moves forward on a number of initiatives on admissions, financial aid, housing, tuition and degree attainment aimed at bolstering student success.

"We want to increase graduation rates, and we want to make sure that our students are getting the kind of excellent education they deserve," he said. "As we become a (Pacific-12 Conference) school, we want to be sure that we’re delivering a Pac-12 education."

Pershing said the university has a roughly 75 percent applicant acceptance rate. In some rankings, schools are rewarded for being more selective, but Pershing said he's more interested in students being informed in their college and university selections than going after a swell of failed applications.

"What I do not want to do is to encourage a lot of people who are not going to be admitted to (apply) just to improve our U.S. News ranking," he said. "We’re going to try to be pretty clear about what it takes to get into the university."

The University of Utah this fall instituted a policy of holistic admissions, which looks beyond high school grade-point average and ACT scores of incoming students.

Instead, students who were at or near the admission line were given extra consideration for taking more rigorous high school courses, participating in student government and other leadership activities, or for being employed during high school.

But between an acceptance letter and a degree from the University of Utah lies several years of tuition costs, major requirements, course scheduling and student life, all of which play a role in success or failure.

Pershing said the university is looking to expand the number of student housing options on campus and he said he'd eventually like to see enough housing for the entire freshman class.

The number of courses offered during the summer is expanding each year, and university officials are working to create online options for "bottleneck" classes that see a high student demand, he said.

Pershing also said the university is working toward a plateaued tuition price in which a student can take 15 credits for the same price as 12. Statewide, the Utah System of Higher Education launched a "15 to Finish" campaign in October, urging students to complete their educations earlier by registering for a full 15-credit course load each semester.

But Pershing also said university officials are working to create a "strategic landscape" of scholarship opportunities for students. Other schools have different missions, he said, and it's important that students decide what school to attend based on their individual goals and not due to cost.

"We think it is important for us to provide as much help as we can in terms of financial aid," Pershing said. "We want the right students to select Salt Lake Community (College). That’s very important to us. And then we want the right students coming to us."

Clark Ivory, chairman of the University of Utah Board of Trustees, said officials at the U. are happy to work with other colleges and universities in the state to make sure they receive the funding and support they need.

But he said it's also important to remember the unique mission of the U. as a premier research university and the state's flagship institution of higher education.

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.

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