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New commission begins talks on long-term vision for higher education in Utah

By Ben Lockhart, KSL | Posted - May 14th, 2018 @ 8:50pm

SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time Monday, the members of a new state commission met at the state Capitol to discuss their work to create a long-term vision for higher education in Utah.

A bill passed by the state Legislature this year created the Higher Education Strategic Planning Commission — comprised of legislators, university presidents and other education stakeholders — and tasked the new body with crystallizing a "strategic plan" for "providing quality, accessible, and innovative postsecondary education that prepares Utahns for the 21st century."

The commission is also tasked with crafting a strategy for "maximizing the role of the state system of higher education in workforce and economic development" and addressing "governance of the state system of higher education, including ... recommending modifications."

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, the former president of Weber State University, said a critical part of the commission fulfilling its responsibilities would be its efforts to understand of Utah's fast-growing population and the impacts it will have on the demand for higher education in the next 20 to 25 years.

"When we think about the population growth our state is expecting the next few years ... we have lots of daunting issues. (Education) is just one of those issues," said Millner, the Senate chairwoman of the commission, citing changes to infrastructure as an additional example. "Let's take some of the demographic work that's been done already, but let's extrapolate that and look at the implications of that for higher education."

Val Hale, and executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, told fellow commission members that "there is no more important thing right now in our economy" than an educated workforce prepared to seize the opportunities that are there for the taking in Utah. Focusing on workforce readiness in education should be a key focus of the commission, he said.

"How can we help higher education to continue to align with industry, and figure out ways we can prepare workers? ... (Businesses) want go grow here," Hale said. "They love what they have in Utah, but the question is, can we get enough workers? Can we get enough qualified workers?"

Ronald Jibson, former chairman of Utah State University's board of trustees and recently retired Questar Corporation president and CEO, said the role of Utah's technical colleges would continue to be critical in the development a well-trained workforce and that their missions should be supported.

When we think about the population growth our state is expecting the next few years ... we have lots of daunting issues. (Education) is just one of those issues.

–Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden

"Certainly we need our technical institutions to do what they're doing, and even more, for the jobs that are going to be (coming to) this state," Jibson told the commission.

Tami Pyfer, education advisor to Governor Gary Herbert, agreed it is important to promote a robust technical college landscape in Utah with plentiful opportunities for students, but cautioned those opportunities need to be accompanied by an "aggressive public information campaign" about the career paths offered through those schools.

"I think the real work comes ... in educating parents and students and the general public," Pyfer told the commission. "Getting the word out is really, really difficult sometimes."

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, echoed Pyfer, saying high schools themselves need to become more knowledgeable about how to aptly advise students interested in a career path that utilizes a technical college.

"When Johnny comes to Mrs. Smith and says, 'What am I going to do with my life?' she needs to know what to tell Johnny," Vickers told the commission.

The commission is tasked with reporting the final version of its strategic plan to various legislative committees, as well as the governor, by the end of November 2019. Its next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 6.

Ben Lockhart

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