Education remains among the hottest topics in Utah, whether it's finding adequate funding, raising the bar for student achievement or re-imagining the role of higher education in the workforce and in the culture. Here, various stakeholders discuss the present and future of education in the Beehive State.
We'd like to give a special thank you to MaryAnn Holladay, president of Holladay & Associates, for moderating the discussion.
Q & A
What, in your view, is the number one issue in higher education in Utah?
HALL: The graduation rate is a big issue as far as I'm concerned, primarily because we need to get more students into the workforce with certificates and degrees. So graduation is a big issue, and that requires more funding and it requires, obviously, understanding the growth in our various demographics.
NIELSEN: Many of our students have to work while they attend our institutions, but most are not prepared with any marketable skills when they leave the K-12 system. If they had some marketable skills in their chosen career path, they could probably work less hours, make more money and be getting skills and credit towards their chosen career path. So much of our K-12 just prepares individuals to be ready to go to college; it doesn't prepare them for the world of work.
BEATTY: Unfortunately, we see a lot of incoming students who are graduating from high school without the skills to even succeed at a higher education level. And now, with the limited financial resources in our country, they only get 12 semesters of financial aid in their lifetime. So if they are wasting two or three semesters of financial aid, trying to get up to a college level-floundering in that 900-level coursework for a couple of years or a couple of semesters--they're wasting their opportunity for higher education. They finally get into their major, they're making adequate progress and they run out of financial aid before they have earned their degree.
O'CONNOR: I have to agree with Del. We're an open enrollment school and we often see students coming in with poor English and math skills. Currently, at our university we cannot offer enough lower-division math courses for the students coming in. They're two or three semesters behind, and that affects their financial aid and graduation. By the time they get going in their junior or senior year, they're married, have children and they are trying to take 15, 18 credits, and it makes it very difficult for them to complete and get the skills they need. That's a major issue.
ENGLISH: Rather than reinforce basic skills, I think we might need to reconceptualize what we mean by "basic skills." One of the biggest challenges that higher education faces is shedding the industrial model of education and rethinking what the purpose of college and the university is, just like we have to rethink what the purpose of high school is.
One of the most dynamic tensions we have as a college preparatory school is, on one hand, trying to be extremely progressive and attentive to the needs of the individual student, while, on the other hand, trying to prepare a student for a very traditional industrial style of education. We are trying to emphasize 21st Century skills of collaboration and learning, and analyzing information across a wide spectrum of resources--but we are still looking at the SAT as a model of acceptance and were still looking at standardized tests as a way of measuring student performance, all measures that come from a very industrialized view of the purpose of education.
PYFER: Regarding the gap were seeing in math and English--the competency of students leaving the high school experience was recognized by the State Board of Education several years ago, and that was part of the reason they adopted more rigorous standards in math and English, language arts, in 2010. The standards started to be implemented in some districts in 2011, 2012. It takes a couple of years, then, to get those cohorts through. But we are seeing success, especially in the younger grades, as we better prepare elementary school and middle school students with foundational math skills that translate to high school and better prepares them to succeed in the pre-college level math and college-level mathematics in their junior and senior year.
So it's not that it has been ignored, but I think everyone is aware of some of the pushback on more rigorous standards. A lot of students struggle with math, and yet we learn that to do math well, it requires some struggle in learning the math concepts. We are seeing now some improvement, and you'll see it exponentially increase as these kids come through who have had better foundational math instruction in the earlier grades. I think you'll start to see that translate into less remedial courses in college.
The bottom line is that those math skills and communication skills are critical for the workplace. So those two areas of skills are not going to ever go away. Those will be prime targets for us to increase the competencies in our students coming out of high school and then into college.
PARTRIDGE: I do think there's an interesting way to think about whether or not Utah has enough of a culture of education and whether or not some parts of that culture are slipping in the context of the broader culture. It's very challenging to hold a large portion of the population to the idea that education is really going to matter all the way through higher ed, starting with elementary ed training in math and language skills all the way up through high school students who are easily distracted by other things that matter to them more.
And in this culture in Utah, where you have people that are marrying young and they have issues around a culture that affects families, bringing it back to the fact that there are not enough women in higher ed--to me it's a little bit of a broader picture of how do we establish an increasing culture of education, particularly higher education, that fits in with where careers and jobs are.
A better job of reaching out earlier and more effectively to our Hispanic and Latino children, which is a large and rapidly growing population in the state, is a real opportunity for us to recruit, retain, support and mentor that population.
~ Tamara Goetz
At WGU we tend to have as our students, with undergrad and sometimes graduate students, adults who have finally caught up with the idea of higher education, going back and finishing a bachelor's degree, for example. This is sometimes driven by hard necessity, and they missed that opportunity perhaps when they were younger, because they didn't have a tight enough linkage between what their life was about and how higher education fit into that.
So what can make a difference in supporting a culture of education and higher education across the state in order to have a positive impact on all the different kinds of education that this audience provides?
~ Pat Partridge
We've had a lot of discussion in our state about the purpose of education. What are your views on that?
HALL: I agree with your point about creating good citizens. As sort of the voice of business, on the other hand, we are here to say we need more workers, and we need a talented workforce. With the economics of Utah, we have great growth opportunities, but we need people that can come to the table and work for us. So where we admire the fact that we are all better citizens with higher ed, we also need to have the students come through with the skill set so we can hire them.
LAWRENCE: Many industries can't hire fast enough; there are not enough graduates coming out to fill their need, so in some cases they are going out of state.
In part due to this demand, innovators are changing how education is delivered. There are a number of companies...