Dave R. Woolstenhulme: With Utah’s changing demographics, college access is more important than ever

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) University of Utah's commencement ceremony is held in Salt Lake City on May 2, 2019.

Enrollment at public colleges and universities in the Utah System of Higher Education increased to more than 184,000 for the 2019-20 academic year. But, while enrollment increases have been consistent, there has been a hidden chasm widening beneath the surface at colleges and universities within USHE — a growing opportunity gap in postsecondary education.

Utah’s population is projected to grow to over 3.5 million by 2065 and the percent of minorities in Utah (ages 18-35) is expected to nearly double. The existing enrollment and completion gap in postsecondary education between minority populations and the white population at Utah’s public colleges and universities will only increase as the state’s demographic makeup changes and access is not addressed.

The potential impact of predicted changes in Utah’s demographics would be 22,377 lost enrollments and 11,265 lost completions in the year 2065 alone according to USHE’s Growing Opportunity Gap Study found on ushe.edu. We must do more to improve access to higher education across the state to stop Utah’s growing opportunity gap.

USHE has already taken steps to move toward increased outreach and access to Utah’s underserved populations through a new scholarship program and the introduction of college access advisers in high schools across the state.

The Utah Promise Scholarship, created during the 2019 Legislative Session and sponsored by sponsored by Rep. Derrin Owens, is Utah’s first statewide needs-based scholarship program aimed at expanding access to postsecondary opportunities for all students who face financial barriers in paying for college. The Promise Scholarship will cover up to full tuition and fees for up to two years for students in qualifying circumstances. The scholarship is available at all public colleges and universities in Utah, including technical colleges beginning in fall 2019.

As another step toward increasing college access for all Utahns, the Utah State Board of Regents has expanded on the University of Utah’s Utah College Advising Corps program which has already been proven to increase college enrollment and college graduation (or completion) rates, helping to close the opportunity gap:

  • For every meeting with a college access adviser, students are 13% more likely to enroll in college.

  • For every meeting with a college access adviser, students are 5% more likely to graduate from college.

These full-time college access advisers will be in 34 Utah high schools for the 2019-20 academic year guided by four regional coordinators housed at Utah’s public colleges and universities. The Board of Regents is committed to continuing this initiative into every high school in the state by the 2021-22 academic year.

The college access advisers will:

  • Help students register for and complete college entrance exams

  • Assist students in submitting college applications, applying for scholarships, and financial aid

  • Connect students to first-year experience programs to ensure a smooth transition from high school to college

Though the Utah Promise Scholarship and college access adviser initiative will surely greatly impact enrollment of underserved populations for the better, more must be done.

The board is working to set a postsecondary attainment goal for the state, consistent with projected demographic changes. This goal will direct the Board’s efforts in their commitment to closing Utah’s growing opportunity gap and increasing access to postsecondary education in the state.

Dave Woolstenhulme

Dave R. Woolstenhulme, Ed.D., became Utah’s interim commissioner of higher education in July. Previously, he served as vice president of statewide campuses for Utah State University, as Utah commissioner of technical education, executive vice provost of Utah State University and president of Uintah Basin Applied Technology College. He received his bachelor and master’s degrees from Utah State University, and his doctorate of education from the University of Wyoming.