Alan Hall: Utah higher education can recover to a better place

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brad Mortensen speaks at his inauguration as the president of Weber State University in Ogden on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.

Odds were against graduation for this year’s commencement speaker at Weber State University. Born into a home of addiction and abuse and raised in the foster care system, Clarissa McEuen was a young single mother five years ago.

One day she looked in the rearview mirror at the encouraging brown eyes of her two young children and determined to find a better path. She detoured on their way home and arrived at Weber State’s Goddard School of Business & Economics.

In the face of daunting challenges, McEuen enrolled that fall semester. She completed her associate’s degree, and then this spring, despite the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, graduated with her bachelor’s degree in business administration. McEuen says the university “changed my story.”

Across our state, thousands are like Clarissa at the precipice of daunting challenges, looking for a change to a better place. The devastation of COVID-19 has zapped jobs. In Utah, more than 150,000 individuals filed initial unemployment claims over seven weeks, more than the total from the previous two-and-a-half years.

Unemployment has hit hardest among black and Latino workers as well as women — groups disproportionately more likely to hold low-paying jobs, which are often more at risk during economic downturns.

What opportunities lie ahead for our family members, friends, coworkers and ourselves as a result of this economic disruption?

Early in 2020, the Economic Development Corporation of Utah released survey results from Utah business leaders. The survey, “Know the Customer,” found that limitations on talent availability ranked as the top challenge to expansion and growth. This perception existed across companies of all sizes and all industry sectors.

Many companies struggle to recruit and retain women and diverse talent. Those surveyed consider this a greater challenge in Utah than elsewhere.

I suggest there is a viable solution to the problem of talent availability. The missing ingredient is opportunities for the unprecedented number of displaced workers to upskill, retool and complete degrees and certificates.

Our goal should not be recovering to normal, but recovering to better. We can be better at having a talent pool that promotes business expansion today and for the fields of the future, like advanced materials, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, robotics and secure computing.

Recovering to better can also include removing barriers to social mobility and economic equity for the underrepresented who have borne the brunt not only of the pandemic but also the economic freefall.

Utah’s colleges and universities are well positioned to play an integral role in Utah’s recovery to better. For example, many programs at Davis Technical College can be completed in less than a year, allowing graduates to quickly begin a new career. SLCC is launching an accelerated Network & Cybersecurity bootcamp with six courses that will result in work-force ready certificates or credits, which can stack into a two-year degree.

Ogden-Weber Technical College has increased both access and completions for students of color. For the past four years, early college high school Latinx students have graduated at a higher rate than other demographics. Increasing online courses by 25% over five years prepared Weber State to have its highest summer enrollment in history, even though courses are virtual.

Another change that will assist Utah’s recovery to better is coming on July 1. Following the passage of S.B. 111, Higher Education Amendments, Utah’s two postsecondary education systems will merge, creating a joint Utah System of Higher Education overseen by the Utah Board of Higher Education.

The new board will build strategic priorities and streamline pathways, creating opportunities for students to stack certificates, associates, bachelors and graduate degrees, both to better assist students and to meet workforce demands.

With the support of the business and political leaders, Utahns can come through COVID-19 to a better place. Building on the principles outlined in the “Utah Leads Together 3.0” plan, we can create a pathway of opportunity for citizens to upskill, retool and complete a certificate or degree. There has never been a better time to go back to college.

Students such as Clarissa McEuen, who exercise the grit to transform their lives in the midst of adversity, stand to benefit greatly from this support.

Alan Hall

Alan Hall is founder of MarketStar Corporation, Mercato Partners, and Grow Utah and a member of the new Utah Board of Higher Education.

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