Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Weber State University students leave commencement exercises in Ogden Friday, April 26, 2013.
Going from 43 percent up to something above 60 percent,' “I would label that as a pretty ambitious goal. —Richard Fry

SALT LAKE CITY — Seven years from now, Utah will lead the nation in degree attainment.

That's the goal put forward by Gov. Gary Herbert, public and higher education officials, members of the business community and, most recently, Utah's Legislature.

The goal, commonly referred to as "66 by 2020," calls for two-thirds of all Utah adults to hold either a technical certification or college degree by the year 2020. It is intended to put Utah's workforce on firm footing for an expanding economy and to better align the state's educational outputs with the demands of the job market.

The goal is remarkable in its ambition. Roughly 43 percent of Utah’s adult population currently holds a post-secondary degree or certificate, which ranks the state near the middle of the country in terms of degree attainment by state, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Achieving the 66 percent goal would require a roughly 50 percent increase in degree attainment over the next seven years, and would be an education marker no other state has achieved.

“Going from 43 percent up to something above 60 percent,' “I would label that as a pretty ambitious goal,” said Richard Fry, a senior research associate for the Pew Research Center.

Fry said that the wording of the goal allows Utah some statistical leeway by including technical certifications, which are not tracked nationally to the same extent as two-year, four-year and professional degrees.

The census bureau does not typically delineate the number of certificate holders in a state, but in terms of the percentage of adults with an associate's degree or higher, Washington, D.C. ranks first with 55.3 percent and West Virginia ranks last with 24.9 percent.

Should Utah reach it's goal of 66 percent by the year 2020, and assuming no dramatic changes in the rest of the country, the state would be among the most educated in the nation.

The question now: Is it doable and what must happen each year to get to 66 percent?

Diverse population growing

Officials with the Utah Governor's Office say the goal is possible and point to economic and demographic projections that show a steady increase between now and 2020 in the number of Utahns turning 18 each year.

"It's absolutely doable," said Christine Kearl, Gov. Gary Herbert's Education Director. "We have the population to accomplish the 66 percent goal but it's not going to come without some effort."

At the time of the 2010 census, there were 676,460 degree- and certificate-holders in the state, according to figures provided by the governor's office. Before the next census in 2020, officials expect to have added 411,240 degrees and certificates to the adult population, with the greatest gains being made in the number of four-year bachelors degrees and post-secondary certifications.

"Is it going to be challenging? Of course it is," David Buhler, Utah commissioner of higher education, said. "It is a big goal. It’s something that will help our state economically in the future if we have a more highly-educated workforce."

Beyond the challenge of simply increasing the number of students in Utah schools, Fry said the state will also need to swim against the current of changing demographics.

Last year, the United States crossed a historical threshold, Fry said, with more than one-third of all adults ages 25 to 29 having completed a four-year college degree. The numbers were also at record levels among most demographic groups, including 23 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Hispanics.

But, Fry said, each year the nation becomes disproportionately more diverse, and while educational gains among minority groups have kept the national average from slipping, that trend may not hold forever.

“Young adults are growing increasingly diverse and particularly they’re growing more Latino,” Fry said. “So far we’ve bucked the trend of changing demographics. Who knows if we’re going to be able to continue to do that.”

The same trends can be seen in Utah, though to a lesser extent. Fry said Utah is unique in that the state’s white population continues to grow – due in part to the same large families that make Utah's per-pupil spending the lowest in the nation – but that growth is still being outpaced by minority students, particularly Latino students.

Like the nation as a whole, Utah has made gains within most demographic groups but a performance gap continues to exist between white students and their minority peers. As the population shifts along those demographic lines, the numbers work against statewide performance averages, particularly in the case of high school graduation where Utah has one of the worst rates for Hispanic students in the country.

“We are becoming much more diverse as a state and that’s a positive, but it also means we need to make sure every segment of our population is having the opportunities they need to get a quality education both at the high school level as well as in college,” Buhler said.

Brick and mortar challenges

Beyond the challenges that demographics pose to the 66 by 2020 goal, there is also the issue of finding the physical space and funds to educate the thousands of extra students necessary to tip the state scales. As revenues declined during the recession and enrollment swelled, colleges and universities relied more heavily on tuition paid by students for operating costs.

In 2008, the state contributed roughly 63 percent of higher education's operating costs, Buhler said. Today, that number is approximately 49 percent, with students picking up the balance of the tab through tuition increases.

“Every state in the country is finding it more difficult to fund higher education from a state perspective,” Buhler said. “That shifts more of the costs to students.”

Higher tuition equates to a higher barrier to entry, as many students find themselves dissuaded by the rising costs of continuing their education. Buhler said his office and the administrators at Utah’s schools are cognizant of this problem and committed to keeping tuition as low as possible. But the traditional funding structure of higher education in Utah all but guarantees some degree of annual increase.

Buhler said the choice is between steady incremental increases or significant tuition hikes every few years.

“Small increases gradually are a lot better than trying to hold it off for two or three years and then have some major jump,” Buhler said.

Utah's public colleges and universities account for roughly 85 percent of Utah's degree earners each year, Buhler said. To achieve the 66 by 2020 goal, the Utah System of Higher Education has set a goal of increasing the number of degrees awarded in the state by 4 percent each year.

"That doesn’t sound like much but it is when you’re dealing with big numbers," Buhler said of the annual benchmark.

The number of degrees awarded increased by 3.76 percent in 2010, 5.69 percent in 2011 and 4.1 percent in 2012. But recent enrollment data suggests maintaining those increases could become challenging in the next few years.

After several years of enrollment growth, Utah's public schools saw a slight decrease in overall enrollment for the 2012-2013 academic year. The recent change in age requirements for LDS missionaries is also expected to impact higher education enrollment for the next one to two years, slowing degree attainment.

Buhler said the plateaued numbers need to be considered in the context of several years of a surging student population that is still making its way toward graduation.

"A lot of those students are not going anywhere," he said. "As those students graduate, we still could have fairly good graduation numbers."

High school grad rates

For grades kindergarten through twelve, public education officials have set similar statewide annual goals. Martell Menlove, state superintendent of public instruction, said the state needs to increase its graduation rate by 2 percent each year in order to reach 90 percent by the year 2020.

Graduation rates have been rising for the past several years and Menlove said he is encouraged by the goal being set at 90 percent as opposed to the seemingly unreasonable 100 percent goals that were a component of No Child Left Behind. But Menlove also said that maintaining increases will require more investment and effort as the state's numbers improve.

"As in most things, that last 2 or 3 percent is going to be the most difficult to achieve," he said.

Schools have also been charged with maintaining a 90 percent reading proficiency rate for third-graders and while no annual increase has been set, Menlove said districts will likely be asked to set their own annual benchmarks to reach that goal.

“I’m anticipating we’ll ask each school, each district, each charter school, to set a progression so that they have third-graders reading on grade level at that 90 percent goal by 2020,” he said.

Menlove said he was encouraged by the response of lawmakers to fund the needs of public education during the most recent session. Per-pupil spending received its largest bump in several years and both ongoing and one-time funds were added to the $3.7 billion base budget for education.

But Menlove said the annual funding increases received by schools each year are largely consumed by growing costs, with little left over for new and targeted programs.

“Obviously it’s possible,” Menlove said of the 66 percent goal. “It’s going to require an investment if we’re going to accomplish it.”

But exactly how much of an investment the goal will require is not known. And with demographic changes, how much money should be dedicated to increasing the performance of minority populations?

Menlove said educators are working to create long-term plans to present to the Legislature. While this year’s budget priorities from both public and higher education largely addressed pressing and immediate needs, Menlove said that by next year a more structured multi-year funding request should be available.

“Part of our conversation between now and the next legislative session is not only going to be the next session, but trying to lay out a six- or seven-year plan as to what we’re going to do,” Menlove said. “That’s the thing that we didn’t see this year that you’ll see next year.”

That makes this year's planning leading up to the legislative session in nine months crucial to the success of the state's 66 by 2020 goal.

Measuring success

Another challenge with a near-decade-long goal is measuring success. Menlove said that while there are many benchmarks that will be able to be reviewed annually, much of the work being done by educators may not manifest for several years, including beyond the 2020 deadline. The high school graduating class of 2020 is currently in the fifth grade and 2020’s degree earners are in junior high.

“What we do with first-graders this year, you’re not going to see some of these things in graduation rates until somewhere beyond 2020,” he said. “It’s not a matter of once you get there you’re going to be there, because it’s going to take some ongoing investment and ongoing effort to even maintain that 90 percent once you reach that goal.”

In addition to public and higher education, the 66 by 2020 goal has a third component known as Prosperity 2020 that is made up of partners in the business community.

The official Prosperity 2020 website includes a plan with legislative priorities that were largely addressed by lawmakers during the most recent session. But the plan also includes several options for increasing revenue, such as restoring taxes on food, adjusting the severance tax system and keeping the fuel tax on pace with inflation.

Increasing state revenue has gained little traction among the state's leaders, despite a poll released immediately prior to the most recent session that showed a majority of Utah's voters in support of raising taxes to fund education.

Herbert has stated publicly that the key to funding education is through a strong and growing economy, which he says would be threatened by raising taxes. Other initiatives to find new money for education, such as earmarking state alcohol and liquor sales revenue, fizzled at the Legislature.

And an innovative funding plan by Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, to create public-private partnerships to expand high-quality preschool programs for at-risk children, was shot down by other Republicans in the Legislature.

Marty Carpenter, executive vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber, said the business partners of Prosperity 2020 are opposed to general tax increases but are also open to a discussion on making the tax code more efficient. He said there is potential within tax and budget policy to achieve greater returns on investment.

“We want to make sure we’re innovative in how we’re spending the money so we get the biggest bang for our buck,” he said.

The money question

The costs of education initiatives on a statewide scale are substantial. During the most recent Legislative session, an effort to mandate small class sizes in the lower grades – a key indicator of student performance – stalled quickly when it failed to provide any new funding to schools.

During the Legislative session, Logan School District Superintendent Marshal Garrett estimated that it would cost his district $200,000 to comply with just the cap on kindergarten class sizes. On a state level, more than $100 million is currently allocated to schools each year for class size reduction efforts, which officials say amounts to the average classroom being three students smaller than what it otherwise would be.

The class size reduction bill, as well as other efforts by lawmakers over the years to address education, illustrate the traditional way that schools are pulled in multiple directions in the name of improved performance and efficiency.

In addition to the resolution endorsing the 66 by 2020 goal, lawmakers also approved the creation of an education task force, which signalled an intent to move toward more long-term planning and less reactive legislation from Capitol Hill.

“I don’t think you can overstate what a big step forward that is,” Carpenter said. “Everybody is on the same page, everybody is moving toward the same goal.”

Kearl said the various education entities in the state are being asked to prepare multi-year funding requests and plans to present prior to the legislative session.

"I don't think at any time, at least in my education history, have we ever asked the state superintendent, the president of UCAT and the commissioner of higher education to develop an eight-year plan," Kearl said. "This fall we will have eight-year plans for public ed, UCAT and higher ed."

Budgeting for education in Utah is a perennial challenge, with lawmakers typically focused on funding student growth at their current levels. While it is generally agreed that achieving the 66 by 2020 will require some amount of increased investment, Kearl said it is premature to speculate on what revenue and budget steps will need to be taken before the actual requests from public and higher education have been presented.

"I think that's probably the elephant in the room, that's the question that everyone would like to have answered," she said. "We'll know better once we get our eight-year plans this fall. We'll have a better indication of what our revenues look like, what it's going to take to pull this off, can we do it with existing revenues that are forecast or is it going to take some additional resources."

Buhler spoke positively about what has been accomplished so far in reaching the goal, but added that a lot can happen between now and 2020.

“This year we did make some significant progress,” Buhler said. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be all downhill from here, we have a lot of work to do still.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: bjaminwood