SALT LAKE CITY — Calling it a "game changer," Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday presented state lawmakers and education officials with the PACE Plan, part of a statewide initiative to increase Utah's competitiveness through education.
The PACE Plan — which stands for preparing young learners, access for all students, completion of certificates and degrees and economic alignment — is part of the governor's Prosperity 2020 initiative that seeks to have 66 percent of Utah adults holding some form of post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020.
Currently, roughly 43 percent of Utah's adults have completed a post-secondary degree or certification, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.
"We're not just flying by the seat of our pants," Herbert said. "We actually have a plan to put in place."
PACE includes a number of benchmarks that aim to get the state on track to reach Prosperity 2020's goal. Among them are calls for 90 percent proficiency in math and reading, 90 percent participation in college readiness exams, a 90 percent statewide high school graduation rate and an 80 percent post-secondary enrollment rate.
Prosperity 2020 has been embraced by Utah's educators and has garnered support from many leaders in the business community.
"We're coming together in an unprecedented way," Herbert said during the Governor's Education Summit at Salt Lake Community College. "It's going to come from the hard work of all of us, rolling up our sleeves and working together."
The summit also included remarks from David Buhler, commissioner of higher education; Martell Menlove, deputy state superintendent; and Robert Brems, president of the Utah College of Applied Technology. Each expressed a commitment and enthusiasm for the 66 percent by 2020 goal on behalf of their respective organizations.
Each man spoke of his priorities for the upcoming legislative session, which largely revolved around funding enrollment growth. Menlove also spoke about the need for legislation that would establish a college-ready exam for high school students.
Last year, a pilot program resulted in 97 percent of Utah's high school seniors taking the ACT exam. A bill to extend that program, SB10, failed to clear the Legislature.
Buhler said an educated workforce is key to a prosperous state economy. During his remarks he presented a series of tables showing the benefits of continued education, such as increasing an individual's ability to find a job and their average salary and the amount they contribute to state revenue via taxes.
But he also presented figures that demonstrated how higher education funding has declined in recent years. From 2008 to 2012, state funding as a percentage of college and university costs had fallen from roughly two-thirds to less than one-half, he said, placing a higher burden on tuition.
Pricing students out of a college education, he said, is not the way to achieve Prosperity 2020's goals.
"We are not going the direction that we need to go," he said. "While our enrollments tend to go up, we're not keeping up with the number of people graduating from high school."
Buhler said that in order to reach the 66 percent goal, the Utah System of Higher Education estimated it would take an investment of $40 million for increased capacity and scholarships. Buhler issued a call to state lawmakers to provide $20 million, with the other half coming from the system of higher education through innovation, investment and community partnerships.
He also said new scholarships could be designed to encourage enrollment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, which are often referred to as STEM.
The need for more STEM students was a frequent topic during Monday's education summit. Herbert spoke anecdotally about businesses that had expressed their frustrations to him over their inability to find enough skilled workers for their open positions. He said there needs to be a renewed emphasis on STEM careers to better align with the demands of the marketplace. The PACE Plan calls for 90 percent of graduates to be employed in their field of study and to limit the number of job openings that go unfilled because of a lack of trained applicants.
Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, spoke about Utah's educational challenges. Fielding a question about the value of liberal arts, or generalized education, Strohl said that while STEM careers have a clear advantage in earning potential, there are a number of benefits to a generalized education — like good citizenry and educational adequacy — that are more difficult to measure.
He said STEM careers currently make up roughly 5 percent of the U.S. labor market and are not expected to grow beyond 7 percent.
"We've got to balance these things, and I would hate to get rid of liberal arts just because they don't earn as much," he said.