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Guest opinion: Together, we can change the future for Utah students

Distant view of the University of Utah. David O. McKay graduated from the university in 1897.
Earning a college degree and/or certificate has never been more important.
Kenneth Mays

Scott, the first in his family to attend college, has money saved for his schooling but is worried about how he will balance academic demands and full-time work while pursuing an engineering degree.

Maria is returning to college two decades after dropping out to work and raise a family. She’s not sure how she’ll adapt as an older, part-time student.

We understand the anxiety of the Scotts and Marias on our campuses. National research shows slightly more than half of students entering four-year institutions earn their degrees in six years. For those entering community colleges with the intent of transferring to complete a baccalaureate degree, the odds are even more daunting. In fact, more than 25 percent of Utah adults identify as having some college but no degree.

Earning a college degree and/or certificate has never been more important. Currently, the U.S. lags behind other countries in college attainment, with just 48 percent of young adults completing at least an associate degree. This lack of degree attainment jeopardizes their future financial prospects and our communities’ prosperity. Studies show the earnings differential between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less has never been greater. Among millennials, those with a college degree earn about $17,500 more annually than those with only a high school education.

As leaders at Salt Lake Community College, or SLCC, and the University of Utah, we are familiar with students experiencing real dilemmas such as those in the examples above. We know that creative collaborations across institutions can change the odds for degree completion in Utah, so we are working together to improve outcomes. Here’s our good news.

With SLCC as the lead institution, we are proposing a shared building on SLCC’s Herriman Campus. Once funded, this building will be the first of its kind to house two Utah System of Higher Education institutions in the same space, making the transition between an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree seamless. Financial and physical access are both necessary for today’s busy students to achieve their educational goals, and the SLCC/U. Herriman building will bring the best of each institution to students in one of the fastest growing corners of our state.

In the past decade, the southwest area of the Salt Lake Valley, encompassing Herriman, Riverton and Bluffdale, has grown by 66 percent, among the highest rates in Salt Lake County. Subsequently, enrollment at SLCC from students living in this area has risen by 65 percent, while undergraduate enrollment at the U. has increased by 49 percent. By 2040, the population in southwest Salt Lake County is estimated to rise by another 62 percent, ensuring continued enrollment growth. A higher education presence in Herriman will expand access for all.

We’ll offer “2+2 programs” designed to complement each institution’s strengths and focus on high-demand economic development clusters. SLCC will provide the first two years of specific degree programs offering an open access, affordable and teaching-focused experience. Students wanting to continue their educations will be able to take upper division coursework from the state’s flagship university. Programs to be offered will lead to careers in computer science, software engineering, business and nursing and will develop the educated workforce needed to fill the high-demand jobs expected to come with the expansion of Silicon Slopes and at the Point of the Mountain.

Together, SLCC and the U. can help more Utahns earn college degrees. Together, these programs will help students achieve their academic pursuits affordably, conveniently and with their career goals in mind.

Together, we can change the future for Utah students.