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."
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