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Weber State University
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (third from right) is joined by educators and lawmakers at the groundbreaking of the new Tracy Hall Science Center at Weber State University on Friday, May 16, 2014, in Ogden.

OGDEN — Utah's push to see two-thirds of adults holding a degree or certificate by 2020 will add $14.4 billion to the state's economy over 30 years through increased wages and generate $1.4 billion in new tax revenue, Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday.

Those figures, shared during a meeting of the Utah Board of Regents at Weber State University, were drawn from a new report by the Utah System of Higher Education that examines the economic impact of the two-thirds goal, commonly known as "66 by 2020."

The 66 by 2020 goal, endorsed by Utah's lawmakers and education community, has been a key initiative of the Herbert administration. But the economic and tax figures are based on the goal's success, which Herbert acknowledged is not certain.

"I understand the challenge that that goal is to achieve," Herbert said. "It's going to take a lot of effort, a strong commitment, and it's going to cause us to stretch."

"There's going to be plenty of people out there who say we can't do it," Herbert continued. "But the stretching for that goal, aspirational as it may be, is something that I think realistically we need to achieve."

Herbert said education is the key to maintaining a growing economy in the state and preserving a high quality of life. Educational levels correlate with lower occurrences of intergenerational poverty and crime, he said, and played a role in helping families navigate the recent economic recession.

"We see the benefits of those who had a good education," the governor said. "They were able to survive and some thrived during this difficult economic time."

To achieve the 66 percent goal, Utah's colleges and universities must increase both the number of students enrolling in higher education and the rate at which students successfully complete their programs.

Utah's public schools saw several years of enrollment growth during the recession, but statewide numbers fell by more than 2 percent last fall as a combined result of an improving economy and the lowered age requirements for missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

During the Friday meeting, regent Robert Marquardt presented new enrollment projections that show the number of students in the Utah System of Higher Education growing by an average of 2.5 percent each year and reaching 223,000 by fall 2023.

David Buhler, Utah Commissioner of Higher Education, said those figures put the state on track to reach the 66 by 2020 goal.

"That will be sufficient, assuming we continue to increase our graduation rate," he said.

Buhler said the state is making progress toward increasing graduation rates, but more needs to be done. He also said the enrollment projections were based on current data as opposed to being reverse engineered from a hypothetical position of where the state needs to be in 2020.

"This is the actual enrollment growth rate based on the demographics, based on participation rates," Buhler said. "We know whenever you predict something out that far, it’s not going to be exact. There’s going to be things that are unforeseen, but it is our best estimate."

Friday's meeting coincided with a groundbreaking ceremony for the Tracy Hall Science Center at Weber State University, which is scheduled to be completed for the 2016-17 academic year.

The building has been the top construction priority for the board of regents for the past two years, board Chairwoman Bonnie Jean Beesley said, and was approved by lawmakers during the most recent legislative session.

As part of the groundbreaking ceremony, WSU President Charles Wight donned a white lab coat and demonstrated a number of small explosions after joking that the campus' facilities management department would not allow him to participate in the demolition of the college's older science buildings.

"This is the biggest one that (facilities management) would allow me to use," Wight said, holding up a one-liter soda bottle filled with hydrogen and oxygen.

Wight was then joined by Herbert, Beesley, Buhler and members of the Utah Legislature and Weber State University community in manning a large detonator, which ignited a pyrotechnic display and launched a cloud of purple and white confetti over the crowd.

"Weber State is really about guiding students to greater dreams. It’s about helping people transform their lives for good," Wight said during a state of the university address that preceded the groundbreaking. "We want our students to never stop dreaming and never stop doing."

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