Tribune editorial: SLCC marks 75 years of being a college for everyone

(Joseph Holder | The Globe at SLCC) Participants toss bean bags in the Lifetime Activities Center at Salt Lake Community College's Taylorsville Redwood campus, for the school's first Trans Sports Ball Day, on June 26, 2023. The event was designed to promote inclusion of transgender people in athletic events.

Seventy-five years. Two name changes. Nine locations, plus a particularly robust online presence. An estimated two million students through its doors and portals over the years, including 50,000 enrolled at any given time. And goals that never sit still.

Salt Lake Community College, the state’s largest college by enrollment, launched in 1948 as Salt Lake Area Vocational School. Like so much else at the time, it was largely a response to the needs of millions of World War II veterans who sought and had earned a way to a better life after their service.

Extending such opportunities to veterans, through education, housing and other features of the G.I. Bill of Rights, was a giant part of what turned post-war America into the economic and political colossus it quickly became.

And could be again, if we follow SLCC’s example.

Three-quarters of a century later, the school’s primary goal is to extend the opportunities that accompany a post-high school education — whether it is working with modern machines, learning health care skills or taking a less expensive, less stressful first step toward a four-year college degree — to people who otherwise might not have the chance.

It is an effort that greatly benefits all of us, even those of us who never set foot on an SLCC campus or log onto its websites. It deserves our admiration and financial support.

Responding to the changing demographics and needs of the community is the school’s speciality. It’s official history recounts how it answered the population shifts of Salt Lake City, as east-side schools saw their populations shrink and the west side saw increasing demand for educational opportunities. Campuses in Taylorsville, West Jordan, Salt Lake City and, just this year, in collaboration with the University of Utah, Herriman.

In 1959, the school became Salt Lake Trade Technical Institute. In 1987, it became Salt Lake Community College, adding the path to university bachelor’s (and higher) degrees to its mission.

Today, the school’s mission continues to center on pulling in the next generation of students, often from families who have never sent anyone to college before. That is done through outreach to high schools and now even middle schools and individuals, refining admission requirements, keeping tuition low and helping students through the often arduous process — especially for families without post-secondary experience — of rounding up the available financial aid.

It’s not only out of a sense of altruism for the students who will benefit — though that’s great. It is a recognition that the state’s economy and other needs require skilled and educated people.

Our community is chronically short on such needed skills as auto and diesel mechanics. HVAC installation and repair. Aviation maintenance. Nursing and other health-care professionals.

As SLCC President Deneece Huftalin explained to The Tribune Editorial Board recently, the shortage of nurses in Utah led the school to reevaluate its entrance process. It determined that a common hurdle to nursing school admission — known as the Test of Essential Academic Skills, or TEAS — is one of many standardized tests criticized for having a racial bias and an unfortunate tendency to screen out candidates who were perfectly qualified to enter the training. So that, and other requirements deemed unnecessary, have been dropped.

SLCC is also on its way to getting certified as what’s known as an Hispanic Serving Institution, recognizing that nearly a quarter of its students are Hispanic. It is adding more Spanish-speaking faculty and counselors, including at least one mental health therapist, and offering more courses in Spanish.

School leaders are proud of the fact that, measured against the local college-age population, enrollment at SLCC matches the ethnic characteristics of the community exactly.

Class sizes are small, usually no more than 20 students, and 70% of those who earn their professional or technical certificates earn wages above the local average.

The school also reaches out to inmates at the state prison, offering classes that not only help students on their reintegration to life on the outside but also help keep peace in the institution, as only those who maintain good behavior are eligible for the popular program. SLCC’s prison program is now the 10th largest such operation in the nation and at any one time has 10% of the prison population enrolled.

Huftalin explained that her school is constantly striving to help its students through the often intimidating FAFSA process, earning federal grants and other aid for students. As a result, 80% of SLCC grads have little or no debt as they leave the school.

SLCC still falls short of some of its own ambitious goals. Administrators, for example, would like to see 40% of their entering students complete their two-year certificates or degrees within six years. Though that number is tracking in the right direction, and is among the better results posted by two-year colleges nationally, six-year completion is still only at 29%.

The school has benefited greatly from Salt Lake City’s sizable philanthropic community, particularly the Miller family, which sees the benefit to the whole of the area from the college’s programs.

Salt Lake Community College is one of the community’s most notable, and wide-reaching, success stories.

Here’s to another 75 years.