SALT LAKE CITY — In 1990, Utah operated nine public institutions of higher education, seven of which were two-year colleges.
Today, all but two of those colleges have become four-year universities, with Dixie State University the latest to receive university status with a bill signed into law in February.
The change was touted as a way to meet the educational needs of the state's southern region, with Dixie joining a network of regional schools that includes Utah Valley University in Orem and Weber State University in Ogden designed with a dual-mission that maintains open enrollment policies and provides two- and four-year degrees simultaneously.
But with Salt Lake Community College in Utah's capital and Snow College in Ephraim the lone two-year public colleges, some are asking if the state's push for four-year universities is making it more costly and difficult for students to receive associate degrees and professional certificates.
"As time goes on, I predict that we’re going to see a need for community college access," said Cynthia Bioteau, president of Salt Lake Community College.
In North Carolina, where Bioteau worked prior to joining SLCC nine years ago, there are 58 individual community colleges and 17 public universities.
That type of pyramidal structure is common in most states and is effectively the inverse of Utah's higher education system, where universities now outnumber colleges on a 4-to-1 ratio.
"I saw from afar that Utah, through their actions and through their funding allocations, whether they were conscious of it or not, was doing away with or losing the niche that community colleges provide in workforce and economic development," Bioteau said of her decision to relocate to Salt Lake City.
Are the focus and financial attention that four-year schools demand taking away from educating students trying to get into the workforce with certificates and two-year degrees? And just what do Utah employers need?
Salt Lake Community College
In terms of both enrollment and geography, SLCC is a large school. Its 13 locations — consisting of six major campuses and seven satellite locations — stretch from the Salt Lake City International Airport to 9800 South in Sandy.
Last fall, 30,112 students were enrolled at the third week of the semester, the third-largest headcount of Utah's public institutions. But because SLCC students often do not take classes sequentially and are prone to scheduling gaps, school officials estimate the number of students is closer to 60,000.
A study released in September by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that 43 percent of Utah students who earned four-year degrees during the 2010-11 school year had previously enrolled at a two-year school, in line with the national average of 45 percent.
"We are such an important pipeline to our university sisters that currently 64 percent of our students come to our college so they can transfer to the university," Bioteau said. "Our role as career and technical educator and pipeline to the university is critical now more than it has ever been."
But SLCC does more than just transfer students. For the past five years, the school has ranked in the top five associate-degree producing schools in the country by Community College Week, reaching third place last year.
"It says we care just as much about welcoming you as we care about completing and having you complete your goals," Bioteau said.
Utah's Snow College, which enrolls roughly 4,500 students, also consistently ranks among the top 10 junior colleges in the country, including being ranked No. 6 by CNN Money in 2012.
"We feel that, for a lot of students, this is a really good transition from high school to college," said Brandon Wright, Snow's director of admissions. "Some of them might not be ready for the university, and that is our goal to help them be prepared and ready to transfer to the university and finish that degree."
Diversity and access
Utah's education, political and business communities are currently working in collaboration toward a goal to have two-thirds of the state's adults educated beyond high school by 2020. The goal, commonly referred to as "66 by 2020" is designed to align the state's educational outputs with the workforce demands of Utah's growing economy.
But 66 by 2020 includes more than just bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees. Projections from the governor's office call for large gains in the number of postsecondary certificates and associate degrees awarded, which traditionally fall in the sphere of technical and two-year schools.
Marty Carpenter, executive vice president of communications for the Salt Lake Chamber, said that as Utah's economy grows, so does the need for a diverse workforce. He said the general consensus of the business community is that both employers and employees are served by an individual receiving advanced training in their chosen field, whether that means a technical certificate, an associate degree or a doctorate.
"We’re going to need a lot of different kinds of workers," Carpenter said. "We want everyone, wherever they happen to fit into our workforce, to perform at their highest level possible. We want you to be the very best that you can be."
Nic Dunn, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said there is a demand for workers with certificates and associate degrees and that demand is projected to increase as Utah's economy grows.
"We need those jobs now. We’ll still need them in 2020," Dunn said.
The Utah College of Applied Technology, focused on certificate programs, received an additional $5 million from the Legislature this year, which is being applied toward expanding capacity at UCAT's eight campuses.
The technology college has been working toward its goal to triple the number of certificates it awards each year — from 5,000 in 2012 to 15,000 in 2020 — which provides students with another option to Utah's community colleges and regional universities.
"The two-year schools and technical schools remain a critical component in the overall education environment if we are to reach our goals for the year 2020," said Ally Isom, spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert. "We know there’s a good demand there, and we have every intention of maintaining these programs."
At the University of Utah, Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College — the state's three largest schools — the amount of state tax funds appropriated for academic programs during the 2011-12 school year was $229 million for the U., $58.7 million for UVU and $62 million for SLCC, according to data from the Utah System of Higher Education.
Since 2002, Utah Valley University has seen the highest jump in funding with a 47 percent increase in state tax dollars, including a gain of nearly $13 million between the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years, which coincided with the school receiving university status in July 2008.
In comparison, funding at Salt Lake Community College has increased 16 percent since 2002, a greater percentage increase than the University of Utah's 12.2 percent bump over the past 10 years.
Snow College, Utah's smallest and lowest-funded school, has seen its state funding increase by 14 percent since 2002 and received $18.8 million for the 2011-12 school year.
Those figures represent current dollars in the year in which they were received. When adjusted for inflation, state funding for public colleges and universities is down 5.5 percent since 2002, according to the Utah System of Higher Education. Also when adjusted for inflation, only Dixie State University and Utah Valley University are operating with greater state funding for academic programs than they were in 2002.
Academic research shows that two-year schools nationwide are instrumental in preparing a broad student base to complete a four-year university education. In Utah, SLCC enrolls the most diverse student body of any public school, with the percentage of Asian, black, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students topping the overall averages for the Utah System of Higher Education.
In the fall of 2012, 12 percent of SLCC students were Hispanic, compared with 8 percent in public schools statewide. By comparison, dual-mission regional universities Utah Valley University and Weber State had minority numbers closer in line with the state average, with Hispanic students making up 9.2 percent and 8.3 percent of the student body, respectively.
"We have been aware of the changing demographics of Utah far, far sooner than the rest of the state because of our open access invitation to students," Bioteau said. "We are the most diverse institution of higher ed in the state, and we pride ourselves on that. We have college-wide inclusivity conversations with students and our staff on how can we be more welcoming to diversity."
Dave Buhler, Utah's commissioner of higher education, said SLCC's racial and ethnic diversity can be partly attributed to the location of its campuses in the state's urban center. But he said that community colleges both nationwide and in Utah play an important role offering educational access to a student body that is ethnically, economically and situationally diverse.
"It’s a place of great opportunity for people where they can come, almost regardless of what they did in high school, and get the skills and education they need to improve their lives," Buhler said.
Joy Tlou, spokesman for SLCC, described the work of community colleges as being a "facilitator."
"We are the completion refinery for so many students," he said. "They come here to refine their skills and their experiences so they can meet their educational goals."
Buhler said there is a perception that when a school transitions to a four-year university it ceases to award certificates and associate degrees. But the graduation numbers at Weber State and Utah Valley suggest otherwise, he said, with both schools awarding thousands of associate degrees each year.
This year, Weber State University awarded 1,936 associate degrees compared with 1,974 bachelor's degrees and 181 master's degrees.
"This model works well for our state because it’s a money saver to have the dual missions under one roof," Buhler said. "We have in Weber, UVU and now Dixie the proof that they do both missions very well."
Allison Hess, spokeswoman for Weber State University, said the school has maintained a relatively even split between its associate and bachelor's degrees.
"Weber State is working hard to make sure we maintain that option for two-year certificates and degrees if students want them," she said.
Bioteau agreed that the dual-mission model has been succesful for the state, but she adds a caveat. She said the idea of a dual-mission school is optimistic and well-intended, but an institution with an eye toward expansion and competition at the baccalaureate level likely isn't as invested in its associate and technical programs.
"If you’re turning your institution into a university, that’s where your energy, focus and attention will be," she said.
Buhler maintained that the regional university model works for Utah, particularly considering the state's budgetary constraints. But he agreed with the sentiment of SLCC officials that their mission as a two-year school is increasingly vital as more of their peers graduate to a more advanced designation.
Buhler said associate degrees and professional certificates both contribute to Utah's workforce and the state's goal of 66 percent of adults completing a post-high school education by 2020.
"There’s plenty of work for Salt Lake Community College as a community college," he said. "I know they have no intention of changing their mission, and it would be a mistake to do it because they fulfill such an important role."
What is valued?
Isom, in the governor's office, dismissed the notion that Utah's regional universities have abandoned or will abandon their two-year programs. She said university status has only enhanced the opportunities those institutions provide for students.
"Access has not changed. In no way has access been lessened to these schools simply because they became four-year colleges," she said. "In a way, it opens up greater horizons for (students) because it allows them to continue post-degree to a four-year degree if they so choose."
Asked about the shrinking number of two-year schools in the state, Buhler said there is always the possibility of founding a new college if population growth continues, but it is not something he foresees happening in the immediate future.
Isom said the creation of new community colleges is not a current priority for the governor, but education continues to be his first budgetary focus.
"Right now our current structure is meeting our needs, and there's no point in overbuilding the system if there’s not need there," she said. "We will remain focused on the value added in higher education and invest as needed, but not until it's needed because those resources are limited."
At SLCC, Bioteau said officials have been working to expand through efficiency, particularly in online and hybrid courses that free up classroom space, and increasing the number of courses offered during the summer months.
"We have broadened out our summer term to be almost as robust as our fall and spring term, so we’re a year-round college at this point," she said.
The school also owns 90 acres in Herriman that will house the next SLCC campus, a project that Bioteau said will likely begin in the next five years.
At Snow College, which operates campuses in Ephraim and Richfield, Wright said there is currently room for the school to grow.
"We’re always looking to expand here at Snow," he said. "We have plenty of building space to add classrooms if we get more students."
In lieu of establishing a new community college system, Bioteau said the state should work on adequately funding the programs at existing two-year schools. Extra funding is typically given to a college when it receives university status, she said, but it's equally important that the needs of pipeline schools are met.
"Rather than more colleges, I see a need for equalized funding to keep the community college mission as vibrant as it needs to be in the state," she said. "You can’t just fund migration if you also honor the niche role community colleges play in the state. You can not let that pipeline corrode by negligence."
Bioteau said she often fields the question of whether SLCC wants to be a university when it "grows up." The college, she said, already is grown up and the students, faculty and administration have no intention of becoming Salt Lake Community University.
"We live and breathe the mission of access, success and engagement with our community," Bioteau said. "Our key focus is making sure we are providing a trained and skilled workforce for this state and we’ll continue doing that."
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