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Where have all the junior colleges gone?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 10:42 a.m. MDT

The Dixie State College podium  (Jason Swensen, Deseret News) The Dixie State College podium (Jason Swensen, Deseret News)

ST. GEORGE — Next week, the Utah Board of Regents is expected to approve university status for Dixie State College.

When or if that happens, Dixie will be the third Utah public college in five years to transition into a university.

Much of the discussion surrounding the change has centered on a name for the new institution, particularly whether the controversial "Dixie" will remain. Dixie's board of trustees is expected to make that decision Friday.

But removed from the name debate is another question about the changing landscape of higher education in Utah: Where have all the junior colleges gone?

"It feels a little funny in Utah because we really don't see two-year colleges anymore," Snow College President Scott Wyatt said. "They've mostly gone away."

In 2008, Utah Valley State College became Utah Valley University. Two years later, the College of Eastern Utah was absorbed by Utah State University to become USU Eastern.

Later this month, all indications suggest Dixie State College will follow the trend and become an as-yet-unnamed university. After that, only Snow College in Ephraim and Salt Lake Community College will remain as two-year associate institutions in the Utah System of Higher Education.

Unlike some states that draw well-defined and unalterable lines between two- and four-year schools, Wyatt said Utah has a culture that allows all institutions to grow naturally.

Following the trend, Snow College could very likely become Snow University, he said, but it's not something he expects to happen in the foreseeable future, and it's not something the school is working toward.

Snow College consistently ranks among the top 10 junior colleges in the country, and Wyatt said the school would rather be a top-tier junior college than a middle-of-the-pack university.

"We love who we are. We love what we do," he said. "We love playing at the top of our game."

Pamela Silberman, communications director for the Utah System of Higher Education, said UVU, USU Eastern and Dixie, as well as Weber State University, preserved their community college mission while adding the services of a four-year institution.

Because Utah's population likes to remain local, compared with other states, Silberman said people are better served by regional universities than a system that requires a transfer after two years.

"We have these dual-mission institutions," she said. "They haven't abandoned the community college role. They've added on a university role as well."

Silberman also said that because public institutions in the state are united under a common system and subject to approval by the Board of Regents, it would be difficult for the schools to overextend themselves and leave the needs of Utah's students behind.

Schools have to demonstrate a need before receiving approval to change their programs, she said. In every case where a college has received university status, it has been a response to the needs of the state and community, and not institutional aggrandizement, Silberman said.

"They can't implement new programs or new degrees without going through the Board of Regents," she said. "If they were operating independently of each other, we might see that."

Dixie spokesman Steve Johnson said the idea for the new university is to function as a southern Utah counterpart to Weber State and Utah Valley universities. Dixie will continue to offer two- and four-year degrees, Johnson said, and will maintain an admissions policy similar to that of a two-year college.

"We would not abandon our community college mission," he said. "We would be the open enrollment institution for the southern part of the state."

Johnson said Dixie began offering four-year degrees in 2000 and now has 40 baccalaureate degrees in 24 content areas. As the school continues to develop, it will provide more opportunities for students to complete their education in St. George and will continue to be an economic driver for the community and region, he said.

Snow College began a four-year commercial music degree last year, but Wyatt responded with a simple "no" when asked if Utahns would be discussing a new name for Snow University in 2025.

He said he could see Snow offering one or two more four-year programs that are particularly suited to the school, but anything beyond that won't be happening on his watch.

Unlike the booming population of Washington County that is in need of extended education services, Wyatt said Snow is in a comfortable position to continue offering its niche experience to students.

In a prepared statement, University of Utah President David Pershing said his administration has a strong partnership with Dixie that will continue as the school grows into its new role.

"The word is spreading nationwide about the tremendous value and educational opportunities offered here in Utah," Pershing said. "We continue to attract new students and excellent faculty and staff to the outstanding institutions that comprise the state of Utah's system of higher education."

Officials at Dixie held a survey asking the public for help in selecting a new name for the university. Participants were asked to rate specific words like "Dixie" and "southwestern" on whether they should be included in the name.

The results of that survey were released last week, with "Dixie," "State" and "Utah" receiving the highest level of support. Based on those findings, research firm Sorenson Advertising suggested four naming possibilities: Dixie State University, St. George University or University of St. George, Utah Dixie State University and Utah Dixie University.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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