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Higher education action includes money for tech college

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 8:58 p.m. MDT

For months, Gov. Gary Herbert has been advocating for a statewide goal to have two-thirds of Utah's adults holding a postsecondary degree or certification by the year 2020. (Shutterstock) For months, Gov. Gary Herbert has been advocating for a statewide goal to have two-thirds of Utah's adults holding a postsecondary degree or certification by the year 2020. (Shutterstock)

At the beginning of the Utah Legislature 2013 session, The Deseret News pledged to focus its legislative coverage on five key issues that matter to Utah families: early childhood education, college and career readiness, economic development, health care and well-being, and intergenerational poverty. See what transpired in each of those areas during this year's legislative session.

SALT LAKE CITY — For months, Gov. Gary Herbert has been advocating for a statewide goal to have two-thirds of Utah's adults holding a postsecondary degree or certification by the year 2020.

The education goal, commonly referred to as "66 by 2020," has been embraced by the business community through the Prosperity 2020 initiative, Governor's Education Excellence Commission, public and higher education officials and now by members of the Utah Legislature.

Lawmakers approved a resolution supporting the merits of the goal, which included a provision to have 90 percent proficiency in reading at the third-grade level, recognized as crucial to student success.

But no targeted money to reach the goal was designated during the legislative session.

Herbert described the resolution as his No. 1 issue for the Legislature, as lawmakers' support unites the various parties of public and higher education in a common goal.

"That says a lot. It says that we, over the next eight years, are going to work together to raise the bar and achieve education excellence in the state," the governor said. "Forcing us to work together is a good thing for the state of Utah, for education and for our economy."

Utah's colleges and universities received $18 million in mission-based funding, an increase from the amount requested by the Board of Regents, said Dave Buhler, commissioner of higher education.

The funding will help with the state's efforts to increase degree attainment, Buhler said, as each institution has developed initiatives to increase participation, completion and retention.

"We can definitely put it to good use," he said. "Mission-based funding will help with 66 by 2020, there's no doubt about it."

University status was approved for Dixie State College of Utah, now Dixie State University, which is expected to increase the opportunity for four-year degrees and academic research in the southern portion of the state.

An expansion of $10 million was approved for the University of Utah Medical School, which allows for an additional 40 students to be accepted each year. Lawmakers also approved a bill that would grant college credit to veterans based on their military training.

Roughly $5 million was given to expand capacity at the campuses of the Utah Applied Technology College, which Herbert said plays a crucial role in achieving the state's goals.

"They're going to have a more robust role in this goal of 66 by 2020," he said. "We don't all have to have degrees from universities to be successful in the marketplace."

Rob Brems, UCAT president, said he was pleased with the funding from the Legislature, though it fell short of the $9.75 million requested by UCAT officials.

Brems said each of the college's eight campuses have worked with advisory committees to determine what programs need to be added or expanded to maximize the demands of the workforce marketplace.

"We'll use the $5 million that we got to start working down that list, and we'll do our best to contribute to the governor's goal," he said.

Brems also said UCAT is making progress on its goal to triple the amount of certificates awarded each year. The current rate is 6,000 certificates, up from 5,000 last year, he said, and officials are working to raise that number to 15,000 by 2020.

"I see us on the verge of some pretty good growth," Brems said. "With the new funding and expansion and new programs available, we'll have the capacity to accommodate more people."

Several bills also dealt with preparing students to pursue a degree or certification beyond high school. Lawmakers approved SB175, which requires every high school junior to take the ACT or a similar college readiness assessment.

Utah's schools have been administering the ACT for all students since 2011, but with the passage of SB175, that practice replaces state statute calling for a basic skills test, which was retired in 2010.

Last year, Utah's average ACT score was the second highest in the country when compared with the 10 states where more than 95 percent of students took the test.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said a college-readiness assessment aids students in their college preparation and has the potential to inspire or motivate students who otherwise had not planned on pursuing higher education.

"Many of our students don't attend college because they just think they can't do it," Eliason said. "It's believed that many students will realize that they're actually prepared to go to college when they see what kind of score they get."

While more students will be taking the ACT, fewer may choose to take concurrent enrollment courses after a bill passed that charges high school students for enrolling in the rigorous, college credit courses.

The bill clears up the language of a law passed last year that would have charged high school students for concurrent courses but was never implemented due to cumbersome exceptions included in the statute.

The law calls for students to pay up to $30 per credit hour in an effort to ensure the financial strength and continuation of concurrent enrollment offerings, which education officials say is necessary to avoid reductions in course offerings.

Also included in the budget is roughly $20 million for the expansion of STEM — science, technology, education and mathematics — education. STEM funding was a key component of the governor's proposed budget and 66 by 2020 initiative.

In addition to increasing the number of degree and certificate holders, Herbert said there is also a need for more STEM graduates to ensure that Utah's educated workforce aligns with the needs of the marketplace.

"It's a significant sea change. It's the fact that we recognize there's got to be some priorities in what people are graduating with," he said. "We have too many jobs going wanting and yet still high unemployment only because the people don't have the skills to fill the jobs."

E-mail: benwood@deseretnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company