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Guest opinion: Changing times demand innovative solutions for higher education

Dixie State, Utah Valley and Weber State universities serve nearly 50% of all Utahns enrolled in USHE schools, including more than 68,000 Utahns in the fall of 2018 — and do so in a cost-effective way.
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Higher education has always been plagued by criticism that it is too elite, too expensive and too exclusive. Lately, those cries have become louder, particularly as the income gap continues to grow, student debt piles up, and families struggle to pay bills.

Here in Utah, we’ve always tried to take a different approach when it comes to higher education. The Utah System of Higher Education includes eight quality higher education institutions designed to meet the diverse educational needs of a growing population. Three of Utah’s eight colleges and universities are integrated dual-mission institutions, referring to a model that combines a community college and university under one roof. This model is proving that accessible, affordable and effective public higher education is working for the people and economy of Utah.

Meeting educational and workforce needs

These three universities — Weber State University, Utah Valley University and Dixie State University, of which we are the presidents, respectively — have been providing Utah’s population with greater access to education at a relatively lower cost. The integrated dual-mission model began with Weber State in 1962, the year it started offering baccalaureate degrees as a junior college in addition to its two-year degrees. Eventually Weber State also added master’s degrees, and in 1991 became a university. Utah Valley followed a similar path, transitioning from a vocational school to a community college, to a state college and then finally a university in 2008. Dixie State, which started as St. George Stake Academy in 1911, later became a state college and most recently a university in 2013.

What makes these three schools unique is that when they became universities, they never abandoned their vocational and community college programs. Today, in fact, with the support of the Utah State Legislature and USHE, and through partnerships with technical colleges, those programs (sometimes referred to as CTE, or career technical education) have grown even more robust. Technical education is an integral part of the universities’ mission and vision, helping to serve the region’s rapidly expanding workforce.

Serving Utahns

Dixie State, Utah Valley and Weber State universities serve nearly 50% of all Utahns enrolled in USHE schools, including more than 68,000 Utahns in the fall of 2018 — and do so in a cost-effective way. They also account for 64% of total USHE enrollment growth since 2000. In addition, the integrated dual-mission model has led to Utah residents attaining a higher number of associate degrees. This model has been key to retaining associate degree-seeking students and moving them through the bachelor’s degree, in part because the barriers of navigating and transferring between two different institutions have been removed.

Cost-effective for the state

The dual-mission universities also provide an excellent return on taxpayers’ investments. These institutions offer students a wide array of credentials, from certificates to associate, bachelor’s and select graduate degrees. Curriculum is coordinated to decrease instructional costs, while shared support services and infrastructure (e.g., administration, IT systems, academic advising) significantly reduce noninstructional costs. This consolidation allocates more resources toward directly educating students and saves a tremendous amount of money, not just for taxpayers, but also for students, who pay some of the lowest tuition rates in the nation. Naturally, this opens doors for a lot more people, making Utah universities and colleges truly inclusive.

For students and their families, Utah’s integrated dual mission streamlines the complex transfer process seen in other states where community colleges exclusively offer two-year degrees. This prevents students from losing credits or repeating courses unnecessarily; it provides exit points in the form of certificates and associate degrees, creating immediate employability for students and the opportunity to return and stack additional credentials in the future. Ultimately, the dual mission is a form of insurance against life circumstances that may delay students’ educational progress, making it possible for students to navigate easily one familiar institution throughout their academic career. As a result, Utah’s three dual-mission universities enroll the largest number of nontraditional students (ages 25 and older) in the state.

We are proud of the work our dual-mission universities do to meet the educational and workforce needs of our state. For the second consecutive year, we will discuss the dual-mission model in depth during a national summit, hosted by Weber State, on Oct. 7. We invite you to join us. This model will continue to support Utah’s changing demographics and growing economy. We are committed to improving the student experience continuously by providing high-quality, accessible, affordable, engaging, personalized and relevant education for the 21st century.

Brad L. Mortensen is the president of Weber State University. Astrid S. Tuminez is the president of Utah Valley University. Richard B. Williams is the president of Dixie State University.