SALT LAKE CITY — The percentage of Utah adults with a four-year degree has fallen from third in the nation in 1960 to 21st today, Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler said Wednesday.
The exact causes of the slide are difficult to identify, Buhler said, likely a combination of Utah falling behind and other states catching up. But he suggested the state's perpetually swelling child and young adult population has forced educators to focus more on managing growth than increasing degree completion.
"For Utah, we’re always struggling to keep up with enrollment growth," Buhler said. "We’re just trying to keep up with the students coming through the door."
Buhler's comments came during a meeting of the Education Interim Committee, during which representatives from higher education, public education and Utah's applied technology colleges spoke to lawmakers about long-term planning in schools.
Much of the discussion centered on the state's ongoing push to increase degree and certificate attainment. A statewide goal, commonly referred to as "66 by 2020" has been endorsed by lawmakers, government officials and the education community and seeks to have two-thirds of Utah's workforce holding a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2020.
Utah's higher education enrollment is expected to grow at almost double the rate of the nation over the next 10 years, Buhler said. The number of degrees awarded between 2010 and 2013 is on track to reach the 66 by 2020 goal, he said, and preliminary numbers in 2014 appear to be on track as well.
Maintaining that progress, however, will become increasingly difficult as time goes on, Buhler said.
"I’m not as optimistic that the next three years, or the next several years, will be as positive as far as being on the goal as we were in the early years of the goal," he said.
Buhler expressed his appreciation to lawmakers for their efforts during the most recent legislative session to address funding inequities at Utah's colleges and universities.
He said continued investment will be necessary to reach the 66 by 2020 goal, particularly as schools reach out to first-generation college students and other underserved populations who require greater counseling and guidance while navigating higher education.
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, asked whether efforts to motivate students toward completing their degrees could result in students making rushed decisions about their career plans. He gave the example of a person who accidentally boards the wrong airplane and questioned whether students are given enough flexibility to determine the proper field of study.
"My fear is that we’ll get to 2020 and we’ll realize we’re in L.A. instead of New York," Eliason said.
Buhler said his office is working with school administrators to make graduation requirements clearer and to increase counseling services to help students make informed decisions about earning potential and their individual interests.
"In higher education we often talk about how students are exploring, which is good," Buhler said. "But sometimes they’re not exploring; they’re just wandering."
Robert Brems, president of the Utah College of Applied Technology, said UCAT campuses constantly look at job placement rates to adjust their course offerings and align with marketplace needs.
UCAT offers opportunities for students to receive career training at a relatively low cost that qualifies them for high-paying employment, Brems said. But he added that technical training continues to carry an academic stigma of being inferior to a college or university education.
"We continually struggle with an image problem that it’s something less than the education that leads to becoming a doctor, an attorney or an engineer," Brems said. "It is constantly a best-kept secret that we’re always trying to get the word out there."
Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, suggested that the solution lies in working with public education to inform students about their options after high school and the high need for workers with technical training.
"Media is not the way we do it," Cunningham said. "The way we do it is get in the classroom with the kids in the high schools."