OREM — Education leaders and elected officials from throughout Utah took part in candid conversations Thursday about what they can do to help more students succeed in school and life during the Utah K-20 Summit at Utah Valley University.
“This might be the most important meeting we’ve had in education in a long, long time,” said Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
“We’ve got to make sure that our young people are prepared for higher education and that higher education is prepared for our young people,” said Cox.
Wherever Utah students fall along the K-20-plus span, it is imperative that Utah’s public school system, technical colleges, and traditional colleges and universities ensure that students “get the type of education and the opportunities they need to be prepared for the workforce of the future,” Cox said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said Utah’s K-12, technical college and university systems act as an “ecosystem.”
Established programs such as concurrent enrollment — which enable high school students to take college classes and earn credit while still in secondary school at very low cost — help public education students “see themselves in that space,” she said.
It is especially important in small and rural schools where students live far from college campuses and may not view themselves as college material, Dickson said.
More work remains to ensure Utah high school graduates are successful in post-secondary education, she said.
“Course-taking patterns are important. We have to ensure that students are engaged in rigorous coursework,” Dickson said, noting that in recent years there has been a slight dip in numbers of Utah students who take four years of math and English/language arts, as well as three years of science and social studies.
David Woolstenhulme, interim commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, said he learned from his son’s experience that many college students require additional support when they live away from home for the first time.
His son did well in school and was involved in athletics, “kind of a big fish in a small pond in Roosevelt, Utah.”
We’ve got to make sure that our young people are prepared for higher education and that higher education is prepared for our young people.
–Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox
“When our son went to college, that became a whole different story, started dealing with depression, started dealing with mental health issues. It was a big transition coming from being ‘the guy,’ and in many ways a star athlete, to now being in an institution of 25,000 students to where he didn’t know a lot of people,” he said.
Eventually, he developed a peer group and joined clubs, which helped him feel as though he belonged. He graduated and is “doing really well,” but the experience was eye-opening for Woolstenhulme and his wife, who are both college educated.
“Thank heavens his mom was a lot smarter than me because I just wanted to kick him in the butt and get him going. The bottom line is, these kids need support. We need to make sure it’s not just academically but also socially. It’s also making sure that they fit in and they feel like they’re part of the institution because they really can get lost in the bigger area,” he said.
It’s critical that students see clear pathways to post-secondary education, whether they attend a technical college or a research university, he said. Utah’s expanding College Advising Corps is playing an important role with those transitions, he said.
College advisers relate better to high school students than older adults and bring a fresh perspective because they recently graduated from college, Woolstenhulme said.
They help students register for and complete college entrance exams, submit college applications, and apply for scholarships and financial aid. Once students are admitted to a college or university, the advisers connect incoming freshmen to first-year experience programs to ensure they have a successful transitions to post-secondary education.
“I’m excited about the College Access Advisors as well. That’s one of our board priorities as well,” said Jared Haines, interim commissioner of the Utah System of Technical Colleges.
The long-term goal of Utah’s higher education system is to have the advisers in every high school in Utah.
Haines said many Utah high schoolers take classes at the state’s technical colleges while they are in high school, which establishes a connection to higher education and allows them to earn certificates that prepare them for the workforce.
“Having had that college experience gives them a motivation and an ability to go further, to take another step,” he said.
The daylong K-20 conference also examined issues of equity, college affordability and increasing high schoolers’ access to accelerated coursework such as Advanced Placement, concurrent enrollment and International Baccalaureate programs.