SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is one year closer to 2020, the deadline for a package of statewide goals for education. Officials report that the state is on track, but maintaining that momentum will be difficult and costly.
Last year, lawmakers formally endorsed the so-called "66 by 2020" goal, which calls for two-thirds of Utah's adult population to hold a degree or certificate by the year 2020.
But as the Legislature convenes for the 2014 session Monday, the task before lawmakers now is identifying the bills that will best contribute to student success and finding funds for their implementation.
"We’ve actually built our whole budget around that," David Buhler, commissioner of higher education, said of 66 by 2020. "To be able to graduate more students, to have more students, we’re going to need to increase our capacity."
In order to reach 66 percent of the population by 2020, Buhler said, Utah's public institutions must increase the number of degrees awarded each year by 3.5 percent. The state met that threshold in 2013, but as those increases compound over time, Buhler said greater investments for capacity, support services and faculty will be needed.
"To be able to accommodate more students we need to be able to hire more people to teach them," he said. "Our graduates this May were on track. It does get more difficult as time goes on."
Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget calls for $104 million in additional funding for higher education, including $57.4 million for a new science building at Weber State University, $19.3 million in equity funding and $3.9 million for the Utah College of Applied Technology.
But those funds come at the expense of other state programs and lawmakers say existing budgetary concerns — such as a potential expansion of Medicaid — could tie their hands.
"We have some big funding challenges this session that will impact everything else we do," said Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan.
The path to 2020 has also been clouded by a recent plateau in enrollment. The number of students in Utah's colleges and universities surged during the economic recession, but an improving economy and a temporary exodus from education by missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints led to a 2 percent drop in enrollment last fall.
Education officials expect those enrollment losses to be regained when the first cohort of 18- and 19-year-old missionaries return to the state. But the requirement to graduate ever-larger numbers to reach 66 by 2020 means that colleges and universities must go above and beyond the students who chose to defer their education.
"If we’re going to be competitive as a state we’re going to need to see that go up," Buhler said of the enrollment numbers. "As a state, we are not going the direction we need to be going over many, many years."
Buhler said that means a greater focus on recruitment, particularly among the state's growing minority populations. He said the state's changing demographics has resulted in more first-generation college students, which is a population that often requires college-readiness interventions and outreach from academia.
"Many of those individuals, their parents did not have the opportunity to go to college and so going to college is not second nature," Buhler said. "That takes a little more effort, more recruitment perhaps, in some cases financial assistance."
Enrollment and success in higher education is also dependent on the preparation a student receives in secondary schools. Sen. Stephen Urquhart, who co-chairs the Higher Education Appropriations Committee, said that if he had a "magic wand" to improve degree-completion, he would waive it over the state's high schools.
"If I could change anything in higher ed., it would be outcomes in public ed.," Urquhart said. "Our kids are showing up for college unprepared to succeed."
He said a major obstacle facing students is mathematics, or "the burial ground of higher education aspiration" as he likes to call it. Math contributes to drop-out rates at both the high school and college level and Urquhart has been working with educators from both systems to draft a bill aimed at incentivizing student to complete college-level coursework in their senior year.
The bill language is not yet finalized — and Urquhart adds that no bill is truly finalized "until the gavel drops" — but he said he would like to see a system where high school students take Math 1 and Math 2 and are then assessed to see what next level is best for them.
"I want high school students to complete math 1050," he said. "Right now we have disagreement on how best to do this."
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove agreed that college- and career-preparation is a priority. Among his wish list for the legislative session is more resources for the extra-academic services that schools provide, such as school counselors who assist students with both mental and emotional health issues as well as educational and career planning.
"Not only do we need 90 percent of our students graduating high school, but those students need to have the information so they can make choices that will lead them into careers and degrees that end up aligned with career opportunities in Utah," Menlove said.
Urquhart said he'd like to see the state move toward a performance- or outcomes-based funding model for the state's colleges, universities and technical colleges.
"Let’s fund actual degrees and certificates rather than warm bodies walking through the door," he said.
Transitioning to that type of funding model would involve significant policy and procedural changes, which are complicated further by funding inequities that exist within the higher education system. Urquhart made the comparison to a foot race, where some schools currently start behind the pack.
Correcting that inequity requires funding dollars, Urquhart said, and while lawmakers will likely take steps in that direction, there is not currently enough money available to fully address the problem.
"We don’t have the revenues," Urquhart said. "We just don’t have enough money to crack that nut this year."
Equity funding is among the legislative requests from the Utah System of Higher Education, Buhler said, as is money for increased capacity at high-growth schools, mission-based funding and compensation for employees.
"By and large, I feel like the Legislature is very supportive of higher education. They realize the value of it, they’ve seen it in their own lives," Buhler said. "It’s just a matter of balancing all the priorities they have to balance."
Among the proposals that will be under consideration this year is a continuation of the Education Task Force, which was formed last year and which is comprised of Senate and House leadership.
The task force has largely focused on K-12 education, but Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said he would like to see lawmakers spend more time on issues related to higher education and the Utah College of Applied Technology (UCAT) if the task force continues.
"We’ve probably accomplished half of what I expected to accomplish," he said. "We still need to tackle higher ed and UCAT issues and how we’re going to get the three silos to work more effectively together."
Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake City, sits on the task force and agreed with Reid that it had not yet reached its goals. But she spoke positively of the task force's work, saying that it has helped bring some focus and clarity on education issues to House and Senate leadership.
"I think it’s helpful because most of those people have not been on an education committee," Jones said. "I think it helps engage them. It helps bring them up to speed."
Urquhart said the task force has been a helpful tool to set the goals of the Legislature. Individual lawmakers have pet projects for education, he said, but those bills can now be weighed against a list of priorities aimed at improving student outcomes.
But when asked whether he supports extending the task force for a more thorough examination of higher education, Urquhart said he doesn't think it's necessary but added that some of his colleagues may wish to continue.
"I think we have a pretty good handle on where we want to go and some things we want to do," Urquhart said. "I’m comfortable proceeding forward with our appropriations committee, with the standing committee and we don’t need a special task force."
Buhler said he welcomes discussion with lawmakers whether the task force is extended or not. He said higher education is a great return on investment for the state and said his office will continue to work with the Legislature to advance the state's educational goals.
"We’re an open book," he said. "We welcome the opportunity to have a deep dive into higher ed and learn more about it and determine ways (the Legislature) may be helpful to us."
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