Robert Gehrke: Here’s how I’d reform Utah’s higher ed system

Robert Gehrke

House Speaker Brad Wilson and Sen. Ann Millner unveiled an ambitious plan this week to reshape Utah’s post-secondary education, merging the governing boards of traditional colleges and universities with technical colleges.

Combining the two, they suggest, would ensure a shared vision and eliminate bureaucratic redundancies, meaning a more seamless system for students.

“This really provides the umbrella structure, we’re going to have the opportunity for some efficiencies that will make a difference for the state,” Millner said Wednesday when a Senate committee approved the 300-plus page bill.

It’s a worthwhile goal, one that Millner and Wilson spent months studying, and the post-secondary education system could, indeed, use some reforms. But any big change like this comes with problems that could be avoided.

Here’s how I would approach overhauling higher education if I called the shots.

Different missions, different demands

While it seems like the tech colleges and traditional universities have a lot in common, they are very different. If you had University of Utah President Ruth Watkins or Utah State University President Noelle Cockett list the top 10 things that keep them up at night, it would look very different from Bridgerland Applied Technical College President Chad Campbell’s list.

Universities deal with things like faculty tenure, research, safety in the dorms, recruiting donors and a slew of issues tech colleges never encounter.

Simply mashing the two together under a part-time board is begging for problems. Not only that, rebranding the new Board of Higher Education is expected to cost more than $1 million, an unnecessary expense.

A simpler solution

Since the 1970s, the College of Eastern Utah served as basically a forerunner of Utah’s technical colleges, with classes on things like welding, automotive mechanics and cosmetology. Then, in 2010, it became a satellite campus for Utah State University — now known as USU Eastern.

It offers the same vocational courses but with expanded liberal arts and professional degree programs, concurrent enrollment for students and easily transferable credits — basically all the things Millner and Wilson are trying to accomplish.

The CEU experiment should serve as a model. The eight technical colleges could be partnered with or absorbed into existing colleges and universities — Bridgerland could become part of USU; Davis and Ogden would join Weber State University; Mountainland would be paired with Utah Valley University and so forth.

The technical college presidents would hate this, viewing it as a loss of status and control, but it would better serve students, vastly expand course offerings and increase efficiency — which is what this is all about.

A new Utah County community college

While we’re revamping higher ed, let’s tackle a few other issues. Currently, Utah Valley University has nearly 42,000 students, making it the state’s largest university by a mile. But it’s graduation rate, 35% getting degrees on schedule, is less-than-great.

Those factors alone make opening a new community college or even a Salt Lake Community College satellite campus in Utah County worth considering. Better yet, beef up the offerings at Mountainland Technical College and transition it to community college status over the next few years.

Do the Purdue

In his budget for the coming year, Gov. Gary Herbert called for a freeze on tuition increases until metrics can be developed to measure affordability and quality.

Since 2000, tuition in Utah has increased 216%, while the median household income has increased just 62%, according to the governor’s office. In 2018, a state audit scolded the Board of Regents for rubber-stamping $131.7 million in tuition increases in the previous five years.

Contrast that with Purdue University. Since former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels became university president in 2013, tuition has not increased and the costs of room and board have been cut by 5%, meaning it’s cheaper to get an education at Purdue than it was six years ago.

Purdue is ranked 18th among public universities by U.S. News, while the University of Utah comes in at 44th, and the cost is the same.

Here are a few ways Utah could cut costs: Eliminate redundancy. Right now, for example, each college and university has its own payroll department. Centralize those functions — and whatever other overlapping tasks there are — under the System of Higher Education.

Second, we need to tap the brakes on the college building boom. For one thing, building now is as expensive as it ever has been, but recent figures indicate that, systemwide, Utah colleges and universities only utilize about a third of their capacity, yet every year the Legislature spends millions of dollars for new buildings. Let’s hit the pause button until we can figure out how to squeeze more out of what is already in place.

Third, Utah should do what many other state systems do and provide a single, uniform application process for admission to every school in the state. It’s simple and clears yet another obstacle for future students.

Make college free

Three years ago, SLCC launched its Promise program, guaranteeing full-time students with limited means access to an education. It’s probably the single best thing to happen to higher education in Utah in years and has opened the door to a college education for some 2,000 students.

It’s just one of several steps where SLCC has led the way on affordability. Utah should set a goal of building on those programs to expand access until every high school graduate who wants one can get a tuition-free community college education.

It’s aspirational and comes with costs, but it’s hard to imagine something that will offer more benefit to Utah’s economy and quality of life.