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Schools say plan for grads wishful

Goal to double technical degrees 'too ambitious'

The governor just signed it into law, but his initiative to double the number of engineering graduates in five years and triple them in eight is already taking on an air of "best-laid plans."

The state's colleges and universities remain firmly committed to turning out twice the number of computer technology and engineering students by 2006. But the financial underpinnings provided in SB61 that Gov. Michael Leavitt signed in ceremonies Monday are looking a little shaky and the time frame a little too ambitious.

"If we had the space built and faculty on board right now, then no problem," said Gerald Stringfellow, dean of the University of Utah College of Engineering. "We are confident and we realize it's up to us to make it happen, but this very much pushes the envelope."

"We have a lot of work to do, certainly, and I think we need to be realistic and remember this is year one of what was designed to be a four- or five-year ramp-up," said Bruce Bishop, dean of Utah State University's College of Engineering. "It will take us a couple years to get the new space on line and that's on a very fast track."

But to meet the goal of producing 3,608 graduates by 2006 and 5,412 three years later, schools would have to increase enrollment by at least 25 percent this fall. They will be adding more students but say it's too early to commit to a specific number. Assimilating the number of students this fall that would be needed to produce the first batch of graduates is impossible. Qualified students have been turned away in recent years because of no space and not enough faculty.

"But more students will definitely be taken as a direct result of (the initiative)," said Dave Pershing, U. vice president for academic affairs. "We will find a way."

Some 7,000 full-time students are now enrolled in about 160 engineering, computer science and technology-related programs in the state's nine colleges and universities. A total of 1,804 degrees were awarded in those program the past academic year.

According to a report by the state Board of Regents, the governing body for higher education the state, nearly 270 faculty positions must be added during the next five years and an operating budget increase of $23.5 million would be required.

Finding new engineering students is no problem, but the lag time involved in recruiting, signing and getting on board a new faculty member is at least a year. And new space, which Stringfellow and his peers at Utah State, the other lead university in the plan, say goes hand in hand with achieving the graduates goal, isn't even on the drawing board.

Plus, the new construction money appropriated in SB61 is in escrow while the universities find matching construction dollars from private donors. University administrators don't doubt that they can move ahead with construction plans and that they will find the donors. It's the time frame that they wonder about.

That might not matter anyway. With elements of the economy showing many signs of conspiring against the initiative, follow-up funding next year that the schools say is critical is in question. The Utah Tax Commission last week reported a $48 million shortfall in the current year's budget. A lot could happen to make up that shortfall by the end of the budget year June 30, but ripples could reach into next year.

When there's $48 million less than what lawmakers spent a few weeks ago, combined with graying economic forecasts, newly funded programs and initiatives cloud up as well.

"Legislative support (for the initiative) is certainly there," Senate President Al Mansell, R-Sandy, said Monday. "But I have to say the economy looks to be going a little south right now. And if we don't realize the revenue that we've projected then . . . well, you know what they say about best-laid plans."

Reality can wreak havoc with them.

The problem is much of the expenditure for the effort is a single-year appropriation, Mansell said. "If we don't have the money to continue and come back at this the way we'd like, then we'll have some evaluating to do," Mansell said, adding lawmakers will know a lot more by June.

Bishop said the initiative would be the last thing to cut back in the face of a stalling economy. "Engineers provide the innovation to create the economic opportunities to pull us through things like this."

SB61 ultimately appropriated roughly half of the money Leavitt initially requested. The measure provides $1 million to hire additional faculty and staff. Utah universities and colleges have agreed to generate $5.5 million in matching funds by cutting or dropping other less popular programs. The bill also provides $2.5 million for the purchase of new equipment and $500,000 for loans to engineering students.

In addition, the new law provides $9.9 million in one-time funds for scholarships and incentives to recruit public school math and science teachers.

Leavitt said the goals of the initiative are ambitious but can still be met. He considers the legislative action as a necessary but first step toward continued economic prosperity. He said Monday he still considers education, and this education effort in particular, as the "growth engine of our economy."


E-MAIL: jthalman@desnews.com