Students should get ‘seamless’ credit for technical courses, job skills and college classes, lawmaker says

A student interested in mechanics might choose to go to one of Utah’s eight technical schools, where she could study automotive repair and quickly earn a certificate that will land her a job.

She’ll earn some money, and down the road, she might think about going further in the field. Maybe she’ll decide to pursue a college degree in engineering or computer science.

But if she did, the state’s current higher education system would force her to completely start over. She would have no credits for the classes she completed for her technical certificate. She would not get to skip any coursework or materials she already understood. And she would get no recognition for years of working in the industry to build that knowledge.

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, wants to change that. With a bill she made public Tuesday, the lawmaker proposes requiring the two post-secondary education organizations in the state — the one for universities and the one for technical schools — to make the pathways between them transferrable and “seamless" for all students.

“Whether they want to go to a career now or go to school,” she said, “we want to make sure that students don’t have to start over because of an institution they were part of.”

Under the legislation, instead of separate boards for universities and technical schools, the governing bodies would be combined into one to oversee both. And it would be tasked with creating a system where students could move back and forth between the two models if they wanted.

If a student wanted to get a tech certificate in nursing and then go to a university for a degree in physical therapy, some credits would transfer under the new design. If a student started at a college and wanted to, instead, finish a certificate, there would be a direct path to do so.

“This new governance structure, I believe, is going to allow for additional flexibility for our institutions to meet the needs of students,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who is co-sponsoring SB111, during a news conference announcing the bill Tuesday.

The legislation moved forward on a 7-0 committee vote Wednesday. But it’s already faced and passed its first hurdle: Getting approval from the leaders of the state’s universities, technical colleges and the boards that oversee them.

Representatives from those institutions joined Wilson and Millner on Tuesday to share their support — although university officials sat on one side of the room and those from technical colleges sat on the other.

“I’ve heard people ask, ‘What’s broke? What are you fixing?’” said David Woolstenhulme, who was previously the commissioner of the Utah System of Technical Colleges. He is now the acting commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education — so he has led both the boards that would be combined. “I won’t say anything’s broke. But I think there’s a lot we can do better.”

Having worked at both organizations, he said, has shown him that the two could accomplish more for Utah students by teaming up.

“It opens the door more for the students,” added Steve Moore, chairman for the technical college board. “That’s what this is all really about. And I think it’s unprecedented.”

The boards functioned as one in the early 2000s, but divisions over finances and purpose tore them apart. Millner, the former president of Weber State University, said with her bill, she doesn’t believe that would happen again.

Under her proposal, there would be one chancellor over the structure. The board members — with the combined title of the Utah Board of Higher Education — would still be appointed by the governor. And the whole team would work to combine the university and technical models to be as smooth for all student experiences as possible.

The process for budget requests and building approvals would remain separate through the Legislature, so there would not be a fight over resources.

It certainly hasn’t been easy to get both sides to agree. And even Wilson noted they had to “step into this slightly uncomfortable place.”

For instance, when the board for the Utah System of Higher Education talked about the proposal for joining forces at its December meeting, many members spoke out in frustration.

“We have two systems, and they are working,” said one.

“We are creating this behemoth organization. How is that governing body going to address all of those issues?” added another.

Others, though, said the two systems cause some redundancies. For instance, three universities in the state — Utah State University’s eastern campus, Snow College and Salt Lake Community College — also have technical certificate options, but they don’t communicate much with the technical schools that offer the same things. And students don’t know the difference between the board governance.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Southern Utah University President Scott Wyatt. “We’ve got two systems managing the exact same training.”

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said she thinks it could “create opportunities for partnership and collaboration that haven’t happened yet.”

That board didn’t come to a consensus during its meeting, and Woolstenhulme warned members that “the legislators are going to move forward regardless.” But they appear to be on the same page now.

With Millner’s legislation, the technical colleges and degree-granting universities would have equal representation on a 14-person board. And the presidents of the eight public universities and eight technical colleges in the state would still be able to weigh in on decisions, as they do now.

The senator hopes it will mean more collaboration and effectiveness among programs, more working with industry to determine workforce needs and more options for students.