July 2, 2012

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Head of the Class

Utah Innovates to Reach Big Goals in Education

Brad Plothow

July 2, 2012

In Utah, a place reputed for its creative and hard-working people, business leaders know that a strong work ethic isn’t enough in today’s flattened marketplace. Education is a key prerequisite for workers to remain competitive in an increasingly complex and globally interconnected economy.

“There’s been a sea change,” says William Sederburg, Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education. “The issue is retooling society for new expectations. We’re in the midst of reshaping education to meet these new needs.”

At the center of this retooling is Prosperity 2020, a coalition of industry leaders who want two-thirds of Utah adults to hold a college diploma or vocational certificate by decade’s end. It’s no arbitrary goal: Georgetown University recently published a study indicating that fully 66 percent of Utah jobs will require some post-secondary training by 2020.

“Prosperity 2020 is an effort at improving outcomes. Businesspeople understand that outcomes like value and earnings are paramount. Education understands this, too, and now we’re bringing a goals-intensive approach to aligning our efforts,” says Mark Bouchard, a Utah commercial real estate executive and chair of Prosperity 2020.

The Prosperity 2020 movement underscores an educational revolution that’s happening in Utah. Government and industry have linked arms with the educational community to work toward the common goal of making education a priority. With unprecedented collaboration and innovative thinking as a foundation, Utah is poised to turn a renewed educational focus into legitimate, sustainable economic power.

A Nimble Infrastructure
The Prosperity 2020 vision begins with a robust public education system, and it relies heavily on a seamless handoff to Utah’s institutions of higher education. Utah benefits from a strong collection of public and private colleges and universities. The University of Utah, the State’s flagship public university located in Salt Lake City, is growing its reputation as one of the country’s premier research institutions, has a top-25 MBA program, administers an extensive healthcare and medical research network, and its recent addition to the PAC-12 athletic conference has risen the institution’s national profile.

On the private side, Brigham Young University in Provo is a proven commodity with an international flair. BYU’s accounting, entrepreneurship and public relations programs rank among the top five nationally, and the institution has one of the most impressive international portfolios of any U.S. university. About 70 percent of BYU students are fluent in a second language, and the university boasts the 15th-largest study abroad program in the country.

Utah’s higher education system consists of eight institutions that play specific roles in the larger organism. Salt Lake Community College is the State’s only community college, but many other institutions play a similar role. The State’s eight applied technology colleges offer skilled training in high-demand vocational areas, and regional state colleges such as Snow College in the east and Dixie State College in the south provide open access to career training as well as select baccalaureate degrees. As the State’s land-grant institution, Utah State University offers programs across the State through an extension footprint that reaches into rural Utah.

Weber State University and Utah Valley University are innovative hybrids. Both institutions offer programs ranging from vocational training to high-demand graduate studies, but they are also open-admission institutions. In this way, they play the community college role in their service regions but offer the added benefit of giving students a route to baccalaureate and graduate degrees without transferring. This model, innovated in Utah, has given more students access to higher education without duplicating costs for administration and buildings that would come with a separate community college system.

If enrollment growth is an indication, the experiment is working. WSU has grown by 40 percent since 2006 to more than 25,000 students, and UVU has added nearly 10,000 students since attaining university status in 2008 and is now Utah’s largest public institution with more than 33,000 students.

Bridging Gaps
While not immune to the impact of the ongoing economic doldrums, Utah’s educational infrastructure hasn’t had to endure the truly crippling budget crises captured by stark newspaper headlines in other states. In part, this is due to a culture of collaboration and innovation, and Prosperity 2020 is Exhibit A. The Governor’s Education Excellence Commission is another example of collaboration that cuts across the sectors. Comprised of educational, government and business leaders, the commission launched in 2010 with the goal of establishing “a roadmap for success toward building educational excellence in Utah.”

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