The demographic forecast for Utah over the next 20 years presents a challenge to southern Utah that university status at Southern Utah State College will help meet, said SUSC President Gerald R. Sherratt.

Sherratt cited a projection of population growth in Utah from the Utah Office of Planning and Budget."The studies are based on population and economic trends of the last 10 years, and as we all know, the forecasts are merely educated guesses," Sherratt said. "But they are the best guesses around and deserve to be taken seriously."

The figures project Utah's population to grow from the current 1,743,000 to 2,346,900 in the year 2010, a 35 percent increase. But 450,000 of the 600,000 increase, 79 percent, will be on the Wasatch Front - Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Utah counties. The growth of the school-age segment of the population, those 5 to 17, will decrease in the first decade of the projections but recover in the second, hitting a peak of 480,000 young people in 2010.

However, the population growth in Utah is not quite as promising for southern Utah institutions of higher learning as it appears - the 15 southern counties have a population of 186,000, 11 percent of the state total, and Davis County alone has a population of 187,000, he noted.

And, of those 15 counties, only Washington, Iron, Kane, Grand, Piute and Beaver are expected to post increases in school-age population. Decreases are expected in Wayne, Juab, Carbon, San Juan, Millard, Sevier, Emery and Sanpete. Garfield County is expected to remain about the same, but factors such as the shutdown or major reduction in work force of its sawmill industries could push it into the declining category.

Altogether, total school-age population in the 15 southern counties is expected to slip from 52,000 to 51,000 in the next 20 years.

While Dixie College in St. George is SUSC's single biggest source of transfer students, the rapid population growth projected for Washington County will have a limited effect on SUSC's enrollment, Sherratt said.

Because the growth will largely be older citizens, the percentage of the population that is of school age in the county will actually decline from 28 percent to 21 percent, although in terms of numbers, the school-age population will increase by 1,800, according to the study.

"Of interest, I think, is the fact the study forecasts that Washington County in 2010 will have more people age 75 and older - 5,175 - than it will have in the college-age years of 20 to 24 - 4,458," Sherratt said. "We therefore expect only a 12 to 15 percent increase in our students from Washington County."

But it will mean at least some enrollment increase for SUSC, and Sherratt also expressed optimism for economic development and growth in Iron County as another source. New firms locating in Iron County will help provide population growth as well as balancing the inherent fluctuations of tourism, Sherratt noted.

"And these new firms mean more homes will have to be built, more service industries added - more of everything," he said. "A vibrant local economy will be extremely important to the long-term growth and vitality of Southern Utah University."

And the new university status itself will provide part of the answer. Although it has been a four-year school for many years, there was a continual struggle for recognition.

"We were plagued by a lack of identity and with the knowledge that much of the population of Utah still thought of us as a junior college," Sherratt said.

Publicity campaigns in recent years have done much to dispel that image, and attention brought by the academic achievements of SUSC students has brought a further swing away from the old perceptions. University status puts to rest any doubts as to what the school is, Sherratt added, and more scholarships and housing will also help achieve the desired enrollment of 5,000, considered ideal for the most economically efficient operation of the school.

With its growing reputation, Sherratt challenged his faculty and staff in a speech to continue to build on the school's reputation for excellence and outlined a broad range of areas, cultural to academic, where the college can expand without infringing on the limits mandated by the Utah State Board of Regents in granting university status.

"The regents have put up some fences, but they have left us a very large pasture in which to roam," he said. "A pasture so vast that it will take many years before we actually find the fences confining."

Even with a projected slight decline in school-age population in southern Utah, Sherratt pointed to increasing enrollment figures, up again by as much as 300 over fall quarter of 1989, despite a housing pinch. And among undergrads alone, Sherratt pointed out, there are some 2,000 southern Utahns enrolled at the three northern universities - a share that SUSC could dip into with its new university status.

And there is the potential of recruiting northern Utah students to the school's less-crowded classrooms and improving academic reputation.

While Sherratt maintained that, by nature, SUU will always remain smaller than the state's other universities, the message was clear - watch out, there's a serious competitor in the south for Utah's college students.