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SALT LAKE CITY — Israel Sanchez, who is working toward a bachelor's degree in health care administration at Western Governors University, has been on a circuitous journey in higher education for nearly two decades.
A while back, he earned an associate degree from Utah State University and has dabbled in other coursework since, ranging from psychology to culinary arts to real estate.
"I feel like have a doctorate in randomness. I've been working at this for so long. Then I've taken a break a little bit and so when I first considered going back to school, I wondered how can I get a degree? I have a family now. I'm 33 years old," Sanchez said during an online panel discussion Monday hosted by WGU in Salt Lake City.
Sanchez is among about 370,000 Utahns who have some college and no degree. One initiative recently approved by the state Legislature aims to help adults finish what they started and prepare more highly educated workers for the state's workforce.
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, sponsor of HB328, said the legislation "provides a path for them to capitalize on that foundation in their education that has already been laid by accessing programs at various institutions, including WGU, to obtain the balance of the credits they need to obtain that sought-after degree."
Funded with an inaugural $1 million, the bill created the Adult Learners Grant Program, which will provide financial assistance to students who are at least 26 years old, financially needy and are pursuing an online degree or certificate in a field where workers are needed.
The program prioritizes grants to students from rural areas, minority students, low-income students and first-generation college students.
"If they have access to broadband, if they have access to a computer, they can literally work on their degrees after the children have gone to bed, during the weekends or any of their off time," Snow said.
WGU has also pledged $1 million in university scholarships in support of the program. It hosted the discussion in advance of Gov. Spencer Cox's ceremonial signing of HB328 and SB136, which simplifies requirements and expands eligibility of state-based higher education grant funding, among other legislation and funding measures recently passed by lawmakers.
Commissioner David Woolstenhulme of the Utah System of Higher Education said the pandemic pressed institutions and educators to innovate so they could continue to deliver instruction and coursework to students outside traditional classroom settings.
If they have access to broadband, if they have access to a computer, they can literally work on their degrees after the children have gone to bed, during the weekends or any of their off time.
–Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara
Woolstenhulme said Utah officials are exploring using federal COVID-19 relief funds provided to colleges and universities for college completion initiatives. As envisioned, schools would reach out to former students who need 20 to 25 credits to complete their degrees and chart a course toward graduation by bundling the resources of state-supported technical and degree-granting colleges and universities as well as partners such as WGU, which is a nonprofit.
"How do we obtain those additional 20, 25 credits, especially where we have some of the federal money available to us to be able to do that over the next couple years and get a good portion of those students completed?" Woolstenhulme said.
Nina Barnes, vice chairwoman of the Utah Board of Higher Education, said while the Adult Learners Grant Program will assist an array of underserved students, at least half — and likely more — of the targeted students are women.
HB328 has provided an opportunity to talk about women and college completion. The state's population of older women living in poverty is growing and this initiative could help interrupt that cycle, she said.
"We know that more women in Utah are becoming single and on their own, and we know that more women are clustering in low-paying jobs. So this really provides an opportunity for women and rural folks to really address these particular barriers that they face," Barnes said.