Higher education.

The role of higher education in Utah has become more important than ever as colleges and universities strive to reach the state's Prosperity 2020 goal. Educational institutions across the board are working to bring nontraditional students to their campuses, whether its to earn a certification at a tech college or begin the pathway to a master's degree. Preparing students for the working world is another goal these institutions have--a challenge they're meeting head on through STEM and hands-on teaching.

We'd like to give a special thank you to Mary Ann Holladay, former director of the Utah Women and Education Initiative, for moderating the discussion.

What is the role of higher education in shaping our Utah workforce and economy?

BREMS: That question needs to immediately go to the current goal we are all involved in, which is Gov. Herbert's goal of 66 percent of Utahns of working age holding either a certificate or a degree by 2020. In my 36 years of working in education, it's probably the most significant thing I have ever seen an executive leader do within the state of Utah. At the Utah College of Applied Technology, we are working very diligently to achieve those numbers that Gov. Herbert has asked us to do. Our partners in the system of higher education on the degree side are working very diligently to do that as well. Because Utah has that goal, we are all working together to achieve a good workforce and good economy.

SCOTT: That goal has become a shared goal of the Board of Regents, the UCAT board of trustees, the State Board of Education and the business community. There's remarkable power in shared vision.

Prosperity really starts with education. Higher education is at the heart of economic development. Companies that have educated workers can be more innovative, productive and successful. In terms of the economy expanding, an educated workforce draws more high-paying jobs, more family-sustaining wages. There are all kinds of other impacts on the economy that come from higher wages over a lifetime. Those with higher education are less likely to be unemployed or in poverty. Think of the social impacts of that. It goes all the way to children with educated parents who get off to a great start with education.

Rob mentioned the 66 percent goal. It's 2014 now--the clock is ticking. How well-positioned are we to meet that goal?

JOHNSTONE: Utah isn't alone in this. Governors in a number of states around the country have set these high-reach goals. There's a realization in many states that they can't do business as usual. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems has done an incredible job of mapping out what would be required to meet those goals state by state. It's frankly stunning when you look at it. If every institution in the state worked at maximum capacity, they could never reach that goal. The only way to reach those goals is to embrace different ways of working in the higher-education realm.

HUFTALIN: We have to find students that have never imagined going to college, whose parents never went to college. We have to find working adults who thought they could never come back to college and have them come back to college successfully. Never before has a system of alternative education been more important. The fact that we have a diverse group of higher-education folks in Utah has to be embraced by the Legislature. We have to be funded for our diversity so that students can access whatever makes sense to them. A small liberal arts school is not for everyone. Salt Lake Community College isn't for everyone. UCAT isn't for everyone. Unless we partner and work collectively, we are never reaching that goal. Unless we pay attention to the young people in our population who need English language learning, who need adult education skills, who need to get up to level for college readiness, I don't know that we will meet it.

CRIM: Even before that, we need to find ways to engage parents in thinking about preschool for their kids. Families who do not have higher education as part of their experience need to start thinking about this when their kids are 3 and 4. Their kids, especially if they live in poverty, need tons of community support along the way. The kind of collaboration that is represented within the higher education world is fabulous. Building those partnerships down the pipeline into low-income communities is important.

WATKINS: We can't turn away from the fact that we are not achieving degree completion at the level we need to. With a 60 or 62 percent graduation rate, we are not serving people as well as we need to who come to the University of Utah. We have to face the fact that access is an important part, but we are not serving people well if we don't get to completion.

SMITH: Whether we achieve the 66 percent or not, I don't think we ought to forget about what this has meant for higher education in the state of Utah. It's forced a strong focus on higher education and the things we have to do to have success in terms of completion and building a stronger workforce, a more educated workforce. We shouldn't just focus on whether we fail or succeed at hitting the 66.

LAWRENCE: As I look at the industries that are growing the fastest, that are providing the highest-paying jobs, their focus on a college degree for their employees is declining. They are focused more on what their skills are and proving that they can do the work. It's an interesting push and pull. There are these market forces out there that are creating free or very inexpensive learning opportunities that are also pulling people away from college. In some views it's an acceptable alternative. It's really interesting to watch that dynamic change.

Has that phenomenon changed the perspective for those of you who are not representing four-year institutions? Have you seen a change in emphasis, and is that helping to bolster people coming to your facilities?

MERCIER: We have seen a change in terms of employers wanting to know, "What is it you can actually do?" It's not so much having knowledge, but what they can do with that knowledge.

We need to make sure young people understand that any level of education that you complete is really important instead of just continuing to talk about the four-year degree. That's a really long-term goal for a lot of young people, who think, "That's so far out there, I can't even imagine completing that four years," especially when we are talking about working with elementary school kids and junior high kids and their parents. Those who are not familiar with education, thinking about completing a four-year degree--that's so far out there it's just not real.

How do we start to develop more interim steps of completion so they become familiar and comfortable with the notion of completing? "I need to complete this step first and I can do that because it's short-term and it's realistic for me. And then I can take that and apply it to the next step and take that and apply it to the next step." Then it becomes realistic. We have too many young people who start traditional programs and don't finish. How can we break up that long pathway into shorter pieces of completion?

Completion is important. Whether it is completing a certificate or degree, completion is important. But just saying, "Well, you need the four-year degree," when you are in middle school doesn't cut it with a lot of kids. How do we break that up and make sure the public education system, parents and kids understand that it is possible to do this in a step fashion with everything fitting in as you go along? A lot of those students will make it to the four-year degree and master's degree because they had success along the way.

SEIDELMAN: Some interesting themes have emerged--talking about more efficient and effective pathways into higher ed institutions and ways in which we can work with students to ensure and accelerate their completion.

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