Utah Foundation hopes to grow economy through graduates

Published: Thursday, March 20 2014 11:08 p.m. MDT

Graduates listen to the commencement address in Salt Lake City.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News Archives

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Foundation examined how partnerships between businesses and educators can strengthen Utah's economy during its 69th annual meeting Thursday.

The foundation, which seeks to inform policymakers by providing research and analysis on various local issues, hosted discussion panels with speakers from the Utah System of Higher Education, educational institutions and other groups.

Nolan Karras, former speaker of the Utah House of Representatives and former chairman of the state Board of Regents, said the level of Utah industry's success is largely dependent upon the success of education.

Karras cited a study by Stanford University which found that by adding one year of post-secondary education to employed workers with at least a high school diploma, gross domestic product would increase by 17.4 percent, and the workers' wages would increase by 17.8 percent.

"As a Utah businessman, I need Utah's education system to succeed," he said. "Utah's economy depends on it."

Last year, Gov. Gary Herbert introduced an initiative to increase Utah's population with a college degree or technical certificate from 43 percent to 66 percent by 2020 in order to meet the needs of an expanding economy.

For Salt Lake Community College interim President Deneece Huftalin, the "66 by 2020" goal has underscored the need for industries and educators to work together in developing appropriate curriculums.

"We know that many times in industry, certificates of competency or proficiency are more important than a particular degree, so we really focus on what the emerging needs of those industries and how we can create short-term flexible programs," Huftalin said.

Huftalin said the school also seeks to coach its students in "soft skills" for career development, including how to interview, network and communicate with potential employers. Job shadowing and internship opportunities are also priorities in the school's curriculum.

"We recognize that we are a vital force in the fabric of economic development, and we're trying to be as flexible as possible with as (high) quality programs as possible to contribute to it," she said.

Funding for education and less-than-ideal graduation rates were foremost among concerns raised by the six panelists.

Since 1985, state appropriations have gone from an average proportion of total funding for higher education of 77.4 percent to 51.6 percent, according to 2014's state higher education finance report. Tuition in Utah has subsequently risen to account for the loss in funding.

While Utah's in-state tuition rates remain the third lowest in the nation, the rising costs imposed on students still has educators worried.

"We're trying very hard to figure out ways to enhance our revenue to keep that cost down," Huftalin said.

With 20 percent of Utah's enrolled college students not graduating, Utah sits below the national average of college completion. This is especially true for women, according to Susan Madsen, professor at Utah Valley University and founder of the Utah Women in Education Initiative.

While Utah women obtain 10 percent more associate degrees than men, they receive 6 percent fewer bachelor's degrees, Madsen said.

A survey by the initiative concluded that Utah women have solid aspirations to attend college, but much lower aspirations to graduate. Nearly all women who didn't attend college or who dropped out said they truly believed they would get degrees "sometime."

Madsen hopes the Utah Women in Education Initiative will help women understand the accessibility of higher education, and the far-reaching benefits it can bring.

"It's about helping these women get confidence and know that they can be successful in helping take care of their families," she said. "But also that education can help them step into the communities and make a difference in our schools, in our communities, in our churches and for the state of Utah."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

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