Underserved groups face many barriers in applying to college. For some, it can be English proficiency or daunting placement tests. For others, lack of documentation of previous studies from their country of origin or time restrictions. Degrees also take years to complete, and even attending a higher education campus can be scary.
Then there’s the price tag.
But what if there were a way of offering more flexibility in terms of admission requirements, course options and costs?
That’s what Salt Lake Community College had in mind in renaming its School of Applied Technology to Salt Lake Technical College.
The aim is to incorporate technical skills into the college’s curriculum and help students advance or move into the workforce. Programs include certifications in health care, information technology, truck driving and machining. These trainings would be spread across six campuses — South City, Jordan, West Valley Center, Westpointe Center, Taylorsville Redwood and the Miller Campus in Sandy.
The school also offers contextual English as second language classes, tailored to technical programs with vocabulary related to various industries.
“Many higher education institutions started looking at this a long time ago,” said Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College. “I actually think universities are starting to have a think about it, too, is that the processes that we put in place were for very privileged people,” such as assuming that high school records are easily accessible for everyone.
In this technical school, the admissions process is not standardized but based on one-on-one interviews with prospective students and some programs are taught in two languages. It’s also cheaper, with subsidies from the state, employers and private scholarships.
“The more global our world becomes and the more refugees we are supporting, the more flexible we have to be about how we assess knowledge and what is knowledge. [Whether it is] lived experience versus book knowledge,” Huftalin said. “And how do we give you credit for that lived experience?”
This change brings immediate impacts to west-side communities.
Attending the college’s West Valley Center often meant enrolling in general education or ESL courses and then, after the students got their feet wet, they would transfer credits to learn a technical craft in the Taylorsville Redwood campus.
Preparing for jobs at new WVC hospital
Now, given the coming addition of a big hospital complex from the University of Utah in West Valley City, there are enough reasons to ramp up short-term health care programs in that center for students who want to be certified nursing assistants, medical assistants or licensed practical nurses.
“We’re going to start trying to do whatever we can in that center in those community neighborhoods so that workforce is being developed while the hospital is coming out of the ground,” Huftalin said. “So now you don’t have to leave your neighborhood.”
Courses that were previously noncredit now qualify for technical credits. “We’re going to make sure,” Huftalin said, “that we’re aligning and adding programs that have been underdeveloped over the years.”
The Salt Lake Technical College continues the mission of the former School of Applied Technology. At the Westpointe Center, the diesel lab resembles a shop with trucks, engines, transmissions and brakes. Students learn basic and advanced engine, electrical and hydraulic systems.
Students from all types of backgrounds attend the technical school. In the diesel systems technology class, for instance, fresh high school graduates and mechanics with years of experience learn or advance their skills.
When Clint Layton, 45, had to take a break from his job as a small-engine mechanic because of health issues, his 17-year-old son, Jared, who was following in his father’s footsteps and started studying to be a mechanic, suggested that he join the program.
Now, Clint not only helps Jared at the shop with systems he already knows but also is preparing for more work opportunities himself, incorporating truck engines to his resume.
“It’s actually pretty cool. When he was in high school, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time [together with him],” Clint said. “And now I see him every day.”
From classroom to workplace
After finishing the program, alumni usually get to choose among different jobs and often earn around $23 an hour after earning a one-year certificate, said Jeff Mulligan, diesel systems technology coordinator at SLCC.
“There will be diesel mechanics out in shops; they’ll work on heavy equipment [such as semitrucks],” Mulligan said. “...They’ll be qualified to go out and work on a lot of the stuff out there as far as in the diesel industry.”
That was Alvaro Huizar’s intention when he enrolled in the program a couple of months ago — to work in the automotive industry, an interest he acquired at Taylorsville High School.
“Coming from a family that’s done construction my whole life, I wanted to try something different because the physical work in construction is hard,” Huizar said. “I wanted something that doesn’t put much weight on you, something a little bit more laid back but that’s still something hands-on because I’ve always wanted to do hands-on activities.”
But for people to enroll in these kinds of programs, they need to be aware of them — and that’s a challenge SLCC is trying to address.
For every student who has discovered and enrolled in a technical course, there are three or four others in the community who are unclear about the opportunities to get in and gain financial aid for their education, said Jennifer Saunders, dean of the new Salt Lake Technical College.
The college is also communicating with employers to determine hiring needs and to connect students with jobs. For those who wish to learn contextual vocabulary in other languages, there are also accelerated basic Spanish courses that rotate across campuses throughout the year.
The rename “is an embellishment of that communication.” Saunders said. “But also it’s a recommitment of serving marginalized, vulnerable populations.”
People in underserved communities often work a couple of part-time jobs and make just enough to cover the essentials, said Saunders. The quickest way to change career prospects is by learning a technical skill and getting immediately placed in jobs.
“It quickly launches a career trajectory, that there’s progression and then there’s advancement and there’s health care and there’s an emotional component that’s hard to quantify,” Saunders said. “But it’s very real.”
Hybrid programs, with virtual and on-campus options, also help students along with smaller and more flexible classes.
“It’s not lost on us that if you have not been a successful student or you’ve had bad experiences or your language is still developing, a college campus is pretty intimidating,” said Saunders. “So we are really strategizing and debriefing with students.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.