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Sen. Howard Stephenson defends saying colleges give 'degrees to nowhere'

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper
Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker Wednesday defended his statement that many four-year degrees are "degrees to nowhere," as higher education officials offered numbers that may suggest otherwise.

"We have tens of thousands of students who get four-year degrees and celebrate their commencement, find out they have $30,000 in student loans and no job," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

Higher education officials said four-year degree-holders in Utah make more money than those with associate degrees, and close to double that of high school diploma-holders. The four-year degree-holders also fared better in the job market. Their unemployment rate in the state in 2009 was 4.9 percent. High school graduates had an unemployment rate of 10 percent.

Stephenson, who has a four-year degree and master's from BYU, said colleges aren't giving sociology, psychology and philosophy majors the real story.

"These colleges refuse to inform them," Stephenson said. "They refuse to give them the data."

Stephenson is clarifying to say he is not calling four-year degrees undesirable. Nonetheless, his message is already being met with opposition from his legislative counterparts.

"Clearly it sends the wrong message," said Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake. "Basically, what we need to be saying is that these are all important and not to be pitting one against the other, because they all provide value."

Romero pointed to sociology majors, which sometimes turn into lawyers and earn good paychecks.

"What's most important is getting a liberal education, getting a well-rounded education and learning how to think," he said.

Even some Republican colleagues are questioning the strength of Stephenson's message. Tuesday, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, told Stephenson he was overstating the lack of value in a college degree.

Stephenson appears to be finding support for his rationale in a new Harvard University report out Wednesday. It says the education system is failing a lot of students that need to be career-ready, not college-ready.

Stephenson is calling certain four-year degrees "degrees to nowhere" as he pushes for an increase in funding for applied technology colleges.

GOP lawmakers are working toward across-the-board 7 percent budget cuts in the 2011 session. The current proposal is to slash applied technology college funding by 5.9 percent. Stephenson maintains that cannot happen. He said there are already long waiting lists for ATC training and good-paying jobs are going unfilled.

"We simply cannot have a backlog in the training of jobs that are waiting for us." Stephenson said.

Stephenson is also proposing the creation of a platform to warn students about their college major choices. While it currently is not in the form of a bill or appropriation, Stephenson said he plans to pitch the idea during a meeting at the Capitol Thursday.