SALT LAKE CITY — Utah education officials want two-thirds of the state's adults holding a post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020, up from the 43 percent of adults who currently have a degree.
To get there, the state is working to implement the Common Core State Standards — a set of benchmarks designed to better prepare students for college coursework. But the purpose of the goal extends beyond college and into the workforce, and it sets up a debate in the state Legislature that will impact how parents and children are educated in Utah.
Among the issues:
• How do you expand Utah's higher education degree offerings?
• What can be done to fund career and technical education?
• What investments — monetarily and otherwise — can be made in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, referred to as STEM, to prepare a workforce for Utah's burgeoning high tech industry?
• How do you increase student performance and options at the high school level?
In the past several years, enrollment at Utah's public colleges, universities and technical schools has increased, but graduation rates continue to trail the national average.
According to a recent report by the Utah Women and Education Initiative, 43.7 percent of men and 49 percent of women currently graduate from four-year bachelor's programs, and more than one in every four Utah adults have an incomplete post-secondary education.
The need for improving both college readiness and degree completion has become a key issue for educators and lawmakers. But the economic downturn prompted schools to raise tuition prices, adding another barrier to access in a time when student debt has reached record levels.
"As state revenues to higher (education) continue to decline, they've found this kind of gap by raising tuition," said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City. "Do we really want to put that burden on the backs of our kids?"
Steps have been taken to improve college graduation and degree attainment, such as the recent launch of the Utah Women and Education Initiative, which examines ways to shrink the state's gender gap in higher education.
Last year, a bill to require a college readiness test — such as the ACT or SAT — for all high school students stalled and failed to pass before the 2012 legislative session adjourned. The bill was designed to replace the state's basic skills test — known as UBSCT, which was retired in 2010 — with a more rigorous examination of a students' preparation to enter college.
Since then, education officials have been using an end-of-year, criterion-referenced test to comply with the state's basic skills testing law. But Judy Park, state associate superintendent over student services, said that exam falls short of lawmakers' expectations.
"The (criterion-referenced test) is not developed for the purposes which the legislation intended, which is to measure student readiness for college," Park said.
Funding for exams
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he intends to sponsor a bill similar to the one that failed last year that would mandate and provide funding for all high school students to take a college readiness exam.
"I am sponsoring that this year, and I am committed to get that done," Stephenson said. "We need every student to take the ACT, and we need those preparations for the ACT."
In 2012, the average ACT score by Utah students was ranked second in the country when compared with the 10 states where more than 95 percent of students took the test. Utah outperformed peer states Colorado and Wyoming, as well as nearly matching the average score of Illinois, which has had a mandatory ACT program since 2008.
At the time the rankings were released, officials with the Utah State Office of Education said that having every student take the ACT would provide better information for tracking college readiness year-to-year, as well as provide a means for comparing the state with the rest of the country.
"We're absolutely supportive of (ACT legislation), and we were a year ago," Park said.
Stephenson said another benefit of the program is that students who otherwise would not have elected to take the ACT are surprised and inspired by the reality of continuing their education.
"Students who never thought they were college material are now becoming the great inventors and scientists of the world because finally they’ve been validated," he said.
Funding the ACT for all high school students is part of a package of legislative requests issued recently by Prosperity 2020, a public/private partnership spearheading a set of goals to improve education performance in Utah.
At the grade school level, Prosperity 2020 has called for $43.6 million in targeted funding for the implementation of computer adaptive testing, the expansion of early intervention and at-risk programs, and an investment into STEM coursework.
"Utah can build the strongest economy in the nation by having the most educated workforce in the nation," Prosperity 2020 Chairman Mark Bouchard said during a recent news conference. "Our greatest natural resource that we have is our youthful population."
The group has also called for $20 million to go to higher education for STEM and health profession degree development, as well as the expansion of online and concurrent enrollment courses, and $9.75 million to triple the number of adults receiving technical education.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, has sponsored a bill to fund an additional 40 students annually at the University of Utah School of Medicine. Valentine said his bill would call for $10 million in ongoing funding, an increase over the $6.5 million allotment in Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget, and would restore some of the cuts made to the medical school during the recession.
That bill cleared the Senate Education Standing Committee on the opening day of the legislative session Monday.
"I sense that we will need additional doctors, especially primary care physicians and especially in rural areas," Valentine said.
The bill also specifies that the added seats be reserved for students with Utah ties, whether that be current residences or students who previously graduated from a Utah high school, college or university.
"I'm looking for people who would have the tendency to stay in Utah to fill these slots," he said.
Last week the Utah State Board of Regents approved university status for Dixie State College. The issue now heads to the Legislature for final approval.
Officials say Dixie State University would function as a counterpart to Utah Valley University and Weber State University in that it would provide an open-enrollment university option for students in the southern portion of the state.
"What we've been able to do in higher education is complete an architecture that is more beneficial for the state," Dixie President Stephen Nadauld said. "Students anywhere in the state, irrespective of their test scores, can find a place to get a university education."
Stephenson is also working on a bill to modify the funding models for career and technical education, often referred to as CTE. The bill is currently in draft form, but he said part of its intent will be to expand technical education at the high school level, rather than expect the state's applied technology schools to "just add water to the soup" and teach more students with the same funding.
"The biggest challenge in CTE education is that we're not providing enough of it," he said. "The market is demanding more than we're providing."
As the country continues to climb out of the economic recession, job growth in Utah is expected to double the national rate, according to a recent report by the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. According to the report, construction and housing will play a leading role in the state's economic recovery and growth.
The report also anticipates strong growth in the professional and business services sector — which includes accounting, engineering and design — as well as in trade, transportation and utilities.
In 2013, Utah employers added 35,800 jobs for a job growth rate of 2.9 percent, the state's highest rate since 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"That's absolutely what you want to see because these are generally high-education, high-salaried jobs," said Mark Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services. "It creates a strong trickle-down effect for the rest of the economy here."
Stephenson said that at Utah's applied technology schools and the CTE programs at Salt Lake Community College, there are significant wait lists for programs that often take only nine months to complete but pay a salary higher than many bachelor's degrees. He said many students are able to quickly obtain a license or certification, which then allows them to work at a $30-per-hour job while they continue their education at a college or university.
"They can earn a lot more money, whether that becomes their career or whether that helps them pay their way through college," he said.
Stephenson said that technical education, much like STEM programs, suffers from students not being made aware of the options and salary potential available to them. Many high school students, he said, have simply never heard that a STEM graduate's lifetime earnings are double that of a non-STEM graduate, which lulls them into a the false belief that all college degrees are created equal.
Realizing this has put him on a "crusade to shout from the rooftops," Stephenson said, and has convinced him of the need for better STEM preparation at the high school level to inform students' decisions.
"They celebrate commencement with their family only to have tears later on when they realize they've earned a degree to nowhere," he said. "I've used that term before and I'll use it again. If you earn a degree that you can't earn a job in to pay back your loans, I call that a degree to nowhere."
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, agrees. He is not sponsoring legislation that specifically addresses STEM funding but said he's spoken with several business owners and CEOs who have outsourced high-paying jobs because Utah fails to produce an adequately trained workforce.
"I fully support the concept that we need to create excitement and enthusiasm in the state far earlier than we do right now, that a STEM career can be an exciting and rewarding career," he said.
In addition to degree and certificate goals, the Prosperity 2020 initiative has set a 90 percent benchmark for students testing proficient in math and English and for the state's overall graduation rate. In 2012, the graduation rate increased to 78 percent, continuing a trend that has seen the rate climb 9 percent since 2008.
To achieve those goals, Prosperity 2020 has requested targeted funding from state lawmakers, but has also suggested tax code changes, such as severance, fuel and food taxes. The idea of new revenue is typically anathema to members of the business community and the state's Republican majority, but Natalie Gochnour, chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber, said the state's educational challenges are cause for a variety of conversations.
"We want to be responsible," she said. "If we're talking about investing, we have to talk about new revenue."
Dabakis spoke positively about Prosperity 2020 but said it is the business community's response to a workforce crises and should not be confused for adequate government leadership.
"It's fine, it's good, it's noble, but it's not a vision," he said.
Stephenson said that setting a goal is meaningless without investment into strategies to achieve that goal. He said one of the educational reforms that most interests him is the idea of individualizing education through new technologies and instructional software.
He said that a tablet or computer program is no substitute for a teacher, much like how an electronic spreadsheet is no substitute for an accountant. But advances in technology make it possible to move past the antiquated and rigid lines drawn between student age groups.
"The batch processing of students was something that was necessary in the 19th century," he said, "but today we can free teachers from the manual labor of teaching batches of students."
He said new technologies carry a price tag, and the ongoing debate in Washington over the fiscal cliff, sequester and debt ceiling place a giant question mark over Utah's already thinly spread revenue.
"When Washington sneezes, the state gets pneumonia," he said, still uncertain how coming federal decisions will impact the state's financial health.
That uncertainty has prompted Osmond to sponsor a resolution to decrease the state's dependence on federal dollars. He said one thing that is certain is the unsustainable nature of what's happening in Washington, and that it is only a matter of time before Utah is hit with a large reduction in federal funding.
"A sizable portion of our state budget comes from the federal government," Osmond said. "If those federal dollars go away suddenly and we're not prepared, we will have serious economic problems in Utah."
But reducing dependency on federal dollars means either increasing state dollars or implementing significant cuts to the state budget.
Dabakis said that for years, lawmakers have failed to put forward long-term plans for how the state will address the funding needs of education in the state. He was particularly critical of last year's Republican-led bills that seek to seize some 30 million acres of public land from the federal government, which passed under the understanding that revenues from those lands would be used for education.
"Why don't we go buy lottery tickets, because I think there's a better shot of funding this with lottery tickets than with the federal government sitting down and saying 'Oh yeah, you're right, take your 30 million acres,'″ he said. "It's not a serious proposal, it's a political proposal. Everyone knows that, everyone will tell you that."
He said he was not yet at the point of proposing legislation to increase taxes, but he said it was time for lawmakers to take a serious look at new state revenues. He also said that state leaders, particularly members of the state's majority Republican party, had been unwilling to face the situation facing education in the state.
"I think Democrats need to be bold and imaginative and need to challenge the status quo and we need to look at revenue increases," he said. "What else can we do? We've tried everything else."
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