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Utah's postsecondary challenge

Published February 1, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Like most states across America, Utah's economy is fragile. So leaders from around the state are busy devising strategies designed to grow jobs, create opportunity and build for a better tomorrow. That's good, but a significant challenge threatens to block their efforts if it's not addressed soon.

Education attainment, or lack thereof, is the issue and it's poised to decide Utah's economic future, and whether Utahns will enjoy greater prosperity and a better quality of life. Here's why, and some ideas on what needs to be done.

When it comes to education beyond high school, Utah ranks a respectable 20th in America. Yet, only 39 percent of adults hold at least an associate degree. That's troubling when you consider that a study — by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce — found that 66 percent of jobs in Utah will require some form of postsecondary education or training by 2018.

The gap between where Utah is and where it needs to be is significant, and that's one reason to be encouraged by Gov. Gary Herbert's "On PACE to 66% by 2020" plan. Achieving this bold plan won't be easy, but strategic and targeted efforts make it possible.

For example, there are more than 370,000 adults in Utah who started college but never finished. Many of these adults are only a few credit hours short of graduation. If a new pathway is created that allows just 20 percent of them to complete their degrees, Utah would add nearly 75,000 degree holders.

Another area of opportunity involves credentialing. Right now, Utah (and every other state) operates under a system of credentials that is based mainly on time spent in classrooms and on campuses — not on learning and acquiring the skills that are genuinely valued in the workplace and can be linked to future opportunities.

What's needed is a new system of credentials to assure that high-quality learning is recognized and rewarded, no matter where or how that learning is obtained. And these credentials need to be identified and developed by employers and higher education faculty to meet the needs of today's fastest-growing fields of study.

A new approach to student financing is also needed to make learning accessible to more people. Much of this work must happen at the federal level, where a revamped system of grants, loans and tax credits is incorporated into a common system to better support both access and success for low-income students.

But changes are needed at the state level, too. Today's students are often taking classes year-round while also working and attending to family responsibilities. To meet their needs, student financial aid needs to be delivered differently. One example is to deliver financial aid in increments, much like a paycheck, with incentives for degree completion such as continuous enrollment in a course load that leads to timely degree completion.

These incentives should apply to student performance, of course, but they should also apply to institutional performance. In other words, just as students are expected to make satisfactory academic progress to retain their financial aid, so should institutions and systems be expected to show progress toward their student-success goals — and goals set at the state level — to retain their funding.

To effectively address Utah's education attainment challenge, more policy makers and corporate, civic, educational and philanthropic leaders need to join forces behind the 66 percent educational attainment goal. That's the best way to ensure economic security and social prosperity for all of the state's residents in the coming years.

Jamie P. Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, a private, independent foundation based in Indianapolis that is committed to enrolling and graduating more students from college.