Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
UVU President Matthew S. Holland talks about his time as the school's president and about his new LDS Church calling as a mission president on Monday, Nov. 6, 2017. Higher education officials from technical colleges, state-funded colleges and universities as well as private liberal arts institutions met in Utah this week to share strategies and war stories about the growing movement to dual-mission institutions.

OREM — There's a quiet revolution underway in higher education: The creation of dual-mission colleges and universities that serve learners who range from students seeking vocational training to those seeking a liberal arts education.

While some herald the movement for its economic efficiencies, others lift up the model as means to bridge the economic divide between people with high school educations or even less schooling and those who have earned certificates and degrees from colleges.

While shifting demographics, lower birth rates and flight from rural communities is driving the change, it is also a function of lower rates of high school graduation in many parts of the country.

"(There's a) growing sense that higher education needs to be done differently now," said Utah Valley University President Matthew S. Holland, who leads the state's largest public university in the state.

“There’s a growing sense that new models and ways of increasing access must be implemented that foster student success for the broadest population,” Holland later elaborated in a prepared statement.

Growing numbers of higher education leaders — for a wide array of reasons — are creating a new path forward to better serve students but also address workforce development in an evolving economy.

Higher education officials from institutions that included technical colleges, state-funded colleges and universities as well as private liberal arts institutions have been meeting in Utah this week to share strategies and war stories during the National Summit on Dual-Mission Institutions in Higher Education at UVU.

Utah is considered a national leader in this area with three colleges and universities — UVU, Weber State University and Dixie State University — offering open-door entry to vocational programs as well as rigorous four-year degree programs.

But unlike many states dealing with lower numbers of students seeking postsecondary training and college, Utah's population is growing, largely due to its higher-than-average birth rate. The economy is bustling, which has resulted in increased funding for the state's public and higher education systems in recent years.

"We are very fortunate in Utah in many ways. Growth is a challenge and it has to be grappled with, but boy, I'd take that challenge over the opposite," Holland said.

In Arkansas, a state roughly the same size as Utah, state funding for higher education has been stagnant the past four years, said Margaret Ellibee, chancellor of University of Arkansas - Pulaski Technical College.

Among a state of about 3 million people, 300,000 have not graduated from high school, she said.

"Many of our population and our students who come to us have a third-grade reading level, said Ellibee.

The technical college is in the beginning stages of a partnership with the University of Arkansas - Little Rock. Officials believe the arrangement will help more students achieve the goal of a bachelor's degree by transferring to the university after completing two years in a more affordable, accessible community college setting. Meanwhile, the college maintains open entry to other students who seeking its technical programs, she said.

Joel Ward, president of Red Deer College, said the college serves a number of rural communities within 60 miles of its Alberta, Canada, campus.

While students attended the college to start their careers, once they transferred to other four-year universities "they never came back," he said.

This has resulted in the "economic, social and cultural impoverishment of our communities," Ward said during a panel discussion.

The phenomenon became a rallying cry in the college's bid to also become a four-year university, which the government approved earlier this year.

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Becoming a degree-granting institution not only would boost enrollment, it would help enable students to earn degrees close to home and help develop Alberta's workforce and economy.

The lack of access was also tantamount to a "social justice issue," he said.

While many institutions of public education have "Harvard envy" and want to move beyond their initial missions, Ward said serving the needs of students and working to ensure vibrant communities are paramount concerns.

"There's only one Harvard. The rest of us need to do our jobs," he said.