Utah leaders rallying for better educated public

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News,Science and Technology

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Allen Doty is sporting a neon t-shirt and weighing his career options.

Doty, 24, leads a team of salespeople at Dick's Sporting Goods and is about to begin his second year at LDS Business College.

"I'm kind of in this limbo," said Doty, who plans to take over his dad's financial advising business. "What I want to do, I don't need a degree for. I just need a license."

After he graduates next year, Doty will be among the pool of Utah adults that Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and other state officials seek to expand. Over the past few years, officials have been begun campaigning for two out of three Utah adults to have some kind of post-high school certificate or college degree by 2020.

Currently, about 43 percent of Utah residents meet that goal, according to state estimates.

Herbert has called on lawmakers and business leaders to rally behind the sing-song "66 by 2020" motto, naming education his top priority. Lawmakers answered that call this year with a resolution supporting it, and they point to budget increases for public and higher education as evidence of their support.

Once Doty earns his business degree, he'll count toward that goal. Even if he were to forego the business degree and opt only to get his broker's license, he would still qualify as part of the two thirds.

The campaign is part of a bigger push to overhaul Utah's school system and help Utah meet a growing number of technology jobs within the next decade. Supporters say the plan has helped bring education issues out of the shadows and into the view of the public and business leaders.

But reaching that goal could prove a herculean task, and business and education leaders concede that they have yet to nail down many of the plan's specifics. Critics contend that the goal stops short of ensuring a way for more low-income Utah residents make their way to college.

If current graduation trends stay constant, the number of college students at Utah schools will need to increase three-fold the projected growth rate, from about 33,000 new students by 2020 to just under 100,000, according to state estimates.

"It's definitely a stretch goal," said Natalie Gochnour, chief economist at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. "And there are people wondering if it's achievable in the time frame that we've identified. But we're rallying behind an aspirational goal and we feel pretty good."

Nick Hillman, an expert on financial aid at the University of Utah, said that without a specific plan to make more financial aid available for low-income Utahns, those residents will have a tough time making it into the two-thirds majority.

"There's something missing in this plan," Hillman said, "that addresses issues of equality and equity."

State officials derived the goal from a study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce estimating that by 2020, more Utah jobs will require some kind of college or post-high school education.

Herbert called on state lawmakers to back the plan this year, and lawmakers answered by moving to raise per-student spending by 2 percent. Utah snagged at least $5 million this year for science technology, engineering and math programs.

"It's clear that our intentions are good and we are united," state Senator Howard Stephenson said of the overarching goal. But, he said, "it's just a beginning."

Business leaders will hash out a plan later this year to determine step-by-step goals and a long-term price tag for the plan, Gochnour said.

Utah schools Superintendent Martell Menlove characterizes the broader goals, which include a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020, as doable but "very aggressive."

"The legislature did a good job in funding that," Menlove said of the education budget. "I'm encouraged by what happened this year, but again when we start talking about professional development for teachers, there are still some needs that are out there, no question."

Business leaders estimate the state's growing tech industry to provide a key number of Utah jobs in ten years. That's the reason for a push in funding for school science, math, technology and engineering, or STEM programs.

Getting Utah residents to college is only part of the challenge, said Utah Higher Education spokeswoman Pam Silberman. About half of college students at four public Utah universities take more than six years to graduate or do not graduate at all, according to the most recent state audit.

That means state officials will have to ramp up measures like faculty advising to help students stay on track to graduate, Silberman said.

Others say the "66 by 2020" plan has already helped statewide education efforts by bringing school issues to the forefront.

Andrea Rorrer, an expert on K-12 education at the University of Utah, praises the plan for bringing education issues out of the shadows and into the view of the public, lawmakers and business leaders.

The plan has prompted "spurts of momentum" for full-day kindergarten programs, Rorrer said, which can lead to better reading and math levels in third grade and also higher high school graduation rates.

Allen Doty, the business student, said his retail job at Dick's has made him consider readjusting his plan.

He plans to graduate on time, he said, but "retail management is looking to be a lot of fun. It's something I can see myself in."

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