Industry Outlook: Higher Education

From tech colleges to research universities, Utah’s higher education institutions are finding innovative ways to partner with industry, serve the needs of a full range of students and adapt to shifting demands.

A special thank you to Richard Kendell, co-chair of Education First, for moderating the discussion.


Gary Carlston, Snow College

Elizabeth Dunning, Holland & Hart, LLP

Russell Galt, Davis Applied Technology College

Lisa Gentile, Westminster College

Benjamin Hart, Governor’s Office of Economic Development

Elizabeth Hitch, Utah System of Higher Education

Deneece Huftalin, Salt Lake Community College

Fred Hurst, Western Governors University

Bethany Hyatt, Department of Workforce Services

Martin Lipsky, Roseman University

Jesse Mangum, JLL

Carrie Mayne, Department of Workforce Services

Joe Peterson, USU – Eastern

Larry Smith, Utah State University

Kelle Stephens, Dixie Applied Technology College

Michelle Taylor, Utah Valley University

Charles Wight, Weber State University


One of the things we are hoping to see in higher education is more collaboration between educational institutions and the larger community. Can you tell us about a partnership that’s been particularly successful at your organization?

WIGHT: One of the most visible partnerships we have is with the city of Ogden. We signed a college town charter with the mayor and the city council. What that does is provide a framework for having regular conversations between the university and the city.

One of the best things that has grown out of that relationship is that the city had a desire to increase the level of communication with underrepresented communities, especially the Latino community in Ogden. But there wasn’t a history of trust between the city and those communities. So we helped broker that conversation and build trust. We have been meeting for about a year and a half and we are just about to create a diversity council, which is an official part of city government, and do some really wonderful things that give those communities a real voice in city government.

HITCH: With the Utah Cluster Acceleration Project, schools are encouraged to look in their surrounding area for those businesses that really have a synergy with them in terms of their academic programming. So there’s a great opportunity for institutions to build what we call stackable programs in a particular industry in their area.

We have seen a huge influx of stackable credentials. So you can start as a student with just a certificate. But that certificate could build into an applied associate’s degree, and that could build into an associate’s degree and you don’t lose credits. You can work your way along to a baccalaureate degree if that’s what you want to do.

HART: What we see with UCAP is that coordination between higher education really seeking what the business needs are, and then being able to provide that resource. So it’s a tremendous partnership. We’ve presented on it all over the country. It really is a best practice, centered here in Utah.

HUFTALIN: Just recently we had new legislation that brought dollars to the table for a similar experience. So institutions can apply to GOED for workforce development funds to allow for training to ramp up, or new ways of thinking to emerge with their dollars focused on economic clusters and those type of things. So there’s actually two parallel sources that are really focused on workforce and higher ed.

KENDELL: The first what I would call stackable credential started with a partnership between Salt Lake Community College and the Jordan School District on bioscience. You could start in high school, come to Salt Lake Community College, and then go to UVU to get a bachelor’s degree.

HUFTALIN: Yes, it is still very viable. There’s biotech and also biomanufacturing. The biotech program is a credit‑oriented program. We still have a really great articulation. In fact, one of our Graduates of Excellence this year was somebody who had come up through that entire chain and is now studying at UVU.

Biomanufacturing we have moved into a continuing education area, because we just found the credit piece wasn’t as salient. But those kinds of stackable credentials have morphed into a variety of other areas. We have worked with GOED very successfully on the Utah Aerospace Pathways Program, on the Diesel Tech Pathways Program.

So it’s looking at where we could help students in high school get involved in a program in their junior or senior year. And in some cases by the end of their high school experience they have a really strong credential. With diesel they have to have another year. But those are going very well, and GOED has been a great partner to say where else could we take that model. Could IT be the next one? What are the other workforce things where we could help high school students start to see a really viable career and go out and work for a while, but always be able to come back to higher education without any kind of loss of credit.

GALT: The Utah Aerospace Program is really working well. That program, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is primarily spearheaded by Boeing. We’ve got students who just graduated from high school this year who participated in that program, came to the DATC for composite materials training, and now they are working for Boeing making mid-$30,000 salary with benefits, right out of high school. That is what this is all about.

The way the program is structured, after they have gone to work for Boeing and got their ATC certificate, they will be able to continue at Salt Lake Community College or Weber State and get advanced degrees if they want.

WIGHT: Healthcare is another stackable pathway for students. We started with nursing and it has been fantastically successful. Nursing students go to the tech colleges to earn an LPN certificate. But then they can stay onsite to finish their associate’s degree, being taught by Weber State faculty. If they want to, they can come to one of our campuses to finish their bachelor’s degree or go on to the master’s degree. So there’s a whole series of stackable credentials.

We have patterned many other programs after this successful nursing program. We are doing it in composites, automotive, EMT and many, many different fields.

CARLSTON: We have quite a number of students who will enter into a CTE program not thinking necessarily that they will go on and get an associate degree. And we are finding a number of students who will get into, say, a welding program or some other CTE program and then find some success and then they see that they can actually go on and earn an associate degree.

That’s one of the real merits of a stackable degree, and especially for students who may not have thought they had either the interest or ability or perhaps even the financial wherewithal to do this. So beyond the institutional offerings, these stackable degrees offer a lot of individual opportunity and, in many cases, confidence for students who may not have thought that they could do something like this.

STEPHENS: We have over 250 students of ours, graduates of Dixie ATC, who are now attending Dixie State University. It’s a pipeline of students who maybe otherwise would never find their way to Dixie State. But confidence, you mentioned, is huge. Students come and realize that they can do it.

HUFTALIN: The other two pathways we are working on hard are the University of Utah and Westminster. Just as CTE students might not realize they have a career path and enough confidence, we have students that come to Salt Lake Community College and think, “I could never go to Westminster. It’s not my thing.” And after a year or so they realize they are really smart and they have great capacity. And all the sudden, a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree is in their line of sight.

To the extent we can broaden that path and say, “Not only are we going to create stackable credentials in a CTE world, we are going to create a pathway in a more academically focused world to help you get to the university and beyond.” Pathways are just as important for a student that wants to consider a bachelor’s degree.

HURST: At Western Governor’s University we primarily deal with adult students. Almost all of our adult students come with prior college work, including different credentials, including the associate’s degree. Just recently we topped 70,000 students that we have enrolled. But we don’t even use that as a metric to measure what we are doing. The metric we use instead is graduation. We don’t have an enrollment goal. We have only a graduation goal, which increases each year.

Affordability is really key for so many of the students that you are talking about and will be coming out of other programs. WGU is right at about $6,000 per academic year, in terms of tuition. And we haven’t increased that amount since 2008. So we are really trying to provide affordable pathways for adult students.

GENTILE: We are interested in the continued development of current workforce. We have a leadership certificate program, and companies can sign up for this program. It’s now mapped onto undergraduate and graduate degrees so you can finish the certificate program. We also have online competency‑based programs, especially in the business area. You can take the certificate program and then you can continue on into your bachelor’s of business administration or your master’s in business administration.

We also have prior learning assessment for the adult students who have workforce experience; that maps into those degrees and allows students to get those degrees much quicker than they normally would be able to.

How can we help guide our young people, who often don’t have any idea what career they want to pursue when they enter higher education?

HITCH: One thing we’ve tried to do is work closely with K-12, and we have some big efforts going now. A regent scholarship was one example of saying to students, “You can shoot fairly high in high school and that will get you further along even if you don’t know what you want to do.”

Now we are spending a lot of time on helping students explore different career paths. Because most students know what their parents do and what their grandparents do, because they see that every day. But they really don’t know what other professions are like. K-12 works hard on that, but we are trying to partner even more with them to say, “This is the pathway. Start here in high school. Keep going, and you can see your way to this kind of profession. And here are the ones that are in high demand in Utah.”

WIGHT: There’s an important disconnect between the demand that you see in the business sector and the supply of graduates we provide. When I first became president of Weber State, I visited Hill Air Force Base and they said, “We need to hire 250 computer scientists and electrical engineers and computer engineers every single year for the foreseeable future.” And we have been modestly successful in increasing the diameter of that pipeline. Right now we have 1,240 computer science majors, but only 15 faculty members. That’s an 80 to one ratio. So the demand stretches our institutions in important ways.

CEOs of software companies come to me and say, “Why can’t you hire a bunch of faculty?” And I tell them, “Well, we do this for the long term. We make a 30‑year commitment in a faculty member.” And do you remember what happened in 2000? With the dot‑com bubble the computer science business went south for a few years. Higher education has to sort of smooth out the dips and increases in that demand.

But the disconnect really is that our funding comes primarily from two sources: from the state legislature and from tuition. Not from the businesses who are crying for the demand for the graduates. So somehow we have to make a tighter connection between workforce development and that demand and the funding that we are able to use to expand our programs to meet that demand.

PETERSON: One of the fundamental transformations students go through is from undecided to decided in terms of their goals. Educational institutions have to be intentional and careful about guiding students as they go through that transformation. A student who goes through that asks themselves, “What do I like to do? What do I enjoy doing and what do I see as appropriate for me in my life pursuit?”

But also a component of that is, “What will this environment reward me for?” So when the businesses say, “We need this many hundred computer engineers,” that’s a message that higher education carries to students. The disconnect exists. It’s clearly there. But higher education is doing a fairly good job in guiding students through that transformation and orienting them toward what will this environment reward you for.

GENTILE: Westminster College is clearly a liberal arts college. Most of our students are undeclared, undecided when they come in. There are very few students at that age who know exactly what they want to do, and they start college and take a straight path and that’s exactly what they do. If they come in thinking they know exactly what they want, they often make changes. So it’s really important that we have built our core curriculum in the first couple of years to allow students to explore without keeping them at college for six years.

We have just redone our liberal education core and there’s a new core that starts in the fall called W Core that gives students a lot of opportunities to explore while at the same time making progress toward their degree.

Is there space for the English majors? Of course there is space for the English majors and the philosophy majors and the nursing students and everybody else. The more that we talk to our community, the more we hear they don’t want somebody that just has these hard technical skills. They want somebody that is well rounded. So the English major or the science major that’s done an English minor is really valuable to them. The further we get into this, the more I see the value of a liberal education.

HUFTALIN: I think in this state and nationally there’s been an erosion of trust in that experience for students. And more and more our businesses and industries are making demands, economic demands and partnerships with higher ed that are focusing students on maybe a technical area.

What will I be rewarded for in my community? Well, you know what, we don’t reward public ed teachers, but we sure as heck need them. I worry if we steer everything toward big business or technology, what happens to folks who have a broader capacity to critically think and to be creative and to write beautifully? That makes me really nervous. And I see that happening in this state. I see people dismissing a liberal arts education and being somewhat flippant about the credibility of that. We have to push back on that a little bit as a society to talk about that value.

MAYNE: Education has to answer to this bifurcated world, where you have a supply and demand that students are looking at for degrees, and the business world supply and demand for workers. Sometimes there’s a push to do the best we can to absolutely align those things, and it does make our school system more responsive to our economy.

But at the same time, sometimes that pushes us away from the broader market that education is trying to address, which is education to rise and increase the effectiveness of our society in general.

A survey that we recently ran for Workforce Services on hard‑to‑fill jobs—a lot of skills that came out of those surveys are being lost in our economy. There are the technical skills and critical thinking and clear writing. And when we start pushing a little too hard to meet business demand, we maybe get a narrow view on what that means, and we forget about the critical thinking.

Workforce Services plays a role in defining that benefit. Usually we measure that in dollars and we can say, “These are the jobs you can get. This is the outlook for those jobs, and this is what those jobs pay.”

And education needs to take a long‑term outlook. We have students coming through a four‑year pipeline or six‑year pipelines. We need to look further into the future to talk to a student about outlook. Business wants them out of the pipeline today, and I see that as being a real challenge. We do the best we can to come together on those, but we need to recognize and honor both of those worlds.

SMITH: One of the initiatives that all the public institutions have been working on with USHE is the design of so‑called meta majors. The meta major is designed so that students can begin to explore a general area of interest, whether it be a STEM‑like area or creative arts area or a liberal arts area. That’s going to be a very powerful tool as we move forward.

LIPSKY: The way I look at it is first there is a workforce issue. It’s a distribution issue. So we are making a conscious effort to have our health professionals become interested in careers in underserved communities and rural communities. We try to do that through selection, reaching out to inspired kids who may not realize that a health career is within their realm. So for dentistry, at our campus in South Jordan, if I threw a stone I’d probably hit a dental office pretty easily. It’s a distribution issue.

KENDELL: For those of you that provide programs for certificates and associate degrees, can you give one example of a program that can lead to a middle class income without having to get a bachelor’s degree?

TAYLOR: We have 60 two‑year degrees. But robotics, they are hired at $55,000 to $60,000 a year and they are hired before they even graduate.

PETERSON: Welding.

STEPHENS: Manufacturing.

HUFTALIN: Aerospace composites.

GALT: Diesel mechanics.

WIGHT: Nursing. Absolutely.

There is a shortage of teachers, and it’s an issue that has gotten caught up in some pretty ugly rhetoric. How do we address this?

GENTILE: There are tech companies partnering with colleges and universities for more engineers and computer scientists. What are we doing for K-12 teachers? We have capacity in our teacher education program. I’m guessing other institutions do, as well. How do we incentivize that for the students so they want to go into that area?

I keep thinking about what rural areas do for physicians. If you commit to being a physician in a rural area for a certain number of years, they will pay for your med school. So how do we set up incentives and programs in pipelines like that for areas that we really have a lot of need in?

HUFTALIN: We have actually had a program in place for 10 years that was specifically designed to get more students of color in the teaching field and get them back in their districts to be role models for young students of color. We actually incentivize them with free tuition for two years; we cover everything.

But after 10 years we have not seen a huge influx in that pipeline. It’s discouraging because even though we give them all these incentives through their academic experience, other external factors, whether that’s the legislature or the school board or whatever, disincentivize that profession and so they don’t stay. So it has to be much more of a statewide commitment to the professionalization and credibility of the teachers.

WIGHT: No teacher that I know of ever went into the profession for the money. They always do it for the love and for the respect. But we have a national conversation right now which is getting nastier and nastier, and the respect for the profession has taken a big blow. And that’s why all of us are seeing the numbers of students who are going into our teacher preparation programs declining.

CARLSTON: It’s actually a range of problems: it’s respect, it’s compensation, it’s expectations, it’s legislation.

The fix is actually to look at this in a comprehensive way. For example, attrition is a huge problem. Teacher attrition is about the same now as it was 15 years ago, about 40 percent in five years. You can’t run any kind of a business, let alone education, with that kind of attrition. So even if we get enough people in, how can we hold them?

The long‑term fix is to look at the profession comprehensively. Look at it from attracting people into it, preparing them well, mentoring, compensation, professional development and accountability. We can’t look at single strands of that.

HITCH: We have a small work team that has been reaching out to focus groups to try to figure out, within this entire comprehensive problem, what do we need to adjust? Licensure? Pay? What’s the magic combination that will solve the problem? It is so complicated to try to put all of those things together, especially with all of the different elements that affect teacher preparation. We have the university programs, we have accreditation of teacher preparation, we have legislation that affects us, the state board makes rules. It gets to be such a complex system that it’s pretty hard to figure out what things have to be managed and changed in order to make it work together better.

TAYLOR: My first job teaching was at Cedar High School and I made $12,999. My husband was going to school. I had a new baby. We just eked out a living. And after six years, I just felt like, “I can’t do this anymore.” It wasn’t that I didn’t love teaching, because I did. I really loved teaching. But I was able to get a job double the money, and it was actually easier. Teaching is difficult.

DUNNING: We live in a society where we express how we value things by what we are willing to pay for them. If you value it, you pay a lot. If you don’t value it a lot, you are only willing to pay a little. And when we pay teachers, no matter what we say to those teachers, “We love you, you are so important to our children, you are the foundation of our society, we have to be educated people,” blah, blah, blah—the message is the paycheck.

GENTILE: If you think about workforce development, it’s not going to happen if you don’t have K-12 education. I sit on the Utah Tech Council. At least half of our conversation is about K-12 education around science and math. It’s not either/or. It has to be an “and” or it’s not going to work.

At Westminster, we’re seeing fewer applicants for our education program. And for the first time we are talking about differential undergraduate tuition. Does it make sense for someone to come out and be a business major to pay the same for their undergraduate education as someone who is going to come out and be a K-12 teacher? And the answer is convincingly no.

What are the truly innovative things you see going on in education?

HART: Where we are seeing strong innovation right now is businesses looking at where they can get involved and help provide more experiential engagement. The thought that we just need to give more information to our students is very traditional. The thought that we can give our students experience, meaningful experience—that changes their vision. It gives them understanding, allows them to make better decisions. That’s where innovation is happening right now across the state of Utah. We see a number of examples both at the technical college level and also within higher education where business is becoming more and more involved.

When business complains we don’t have enough workforce, we have to turn the question around and say, “What are you doing to help produce? You can’t just be an end user and a consumer, but you have to be part of the production as well.”

LIPSKY: In healthcare, one of the exciting things we are doing is moving to the competency‑based model. I was trained as a physician and you did six weeks of pediatrics, and that was your pediatric experience. But some people get it in two weeks. Some people get it in eight weeks. Some people never get it. So a competency‑based curriculum, and also the flipped classroom where students learn on their own and use the teacher for expert discussions, that’s very much the future. The way I think about competency‑based in healthcare education is as a physician, you don’t want me to get an A in hypertension and D in treating respiratory infections. You expect when I come in that I’m competent in everything.

GALT: We have been designated as a U.S. Department of Education experimental site for distributing financial aid in competency‑based education. Financial aid is generally divvied out based on the quarter or semester or at the technical college on a clock-hour basis. We worked with the Department of Education to figure out how to do financial aid on a competency based model. It works well with us because of the technical college system. We have been competency based. That’s been our model. So now we are working with them to develop acceptable methods for distributing financial aid.

HUFTALIN: One of the innovations at the college is open education resources, so the demise of the textbook cost for students. We have gotten to a place where all of our gateway courses are textbook free. So no matter what math class you take, you don’t have to buy a textbook. We are doing that to reduce the cost of coming to college in all of the gateway courses. Probably by the end of the fall semester we will have an entire degree that’s open—so they can take every class and know they won’t have to pay for a textbook. It’s over a million dollars of savings for students this year. That’s huge. That’s scalable and it makes a difference for student access.

HURST: What a lot of my colleagues and I have been looking at nationally is adaptive learning. Adaptive learning is computer based; it recognizes where the student is having difficulty. The example I like to use is if the student isn’t understanding probability—they were supposed to have learned probability in a different course, they didn’t get it done, they have to know probability in order to do this—the computer program they are using would recognize the issue and would give them a remedial lesson in probability so they can move forward with the subject they are really trying to understand.

SMITH: We are very well aware of all the innovations happening in higher education. And I would caution us to be very smart about which of those we incorporate into our higher ed culture. Look at MOOCS. Everyone got on the MOOCS bandwagon and it went nowhere.

With innovation, it’s going to lie with those of us who manage higher ed to make the right decisions about the blend of traditional face‑to‑face versus online, because neither one of those is the panacea for all students. Every student learns differently. We have to figure out the right mixture of educational delivery modalities so that each individual student is taught and learns in the way that’s best for them.

WIGHT: At Weber State we have programs that employ competency‑based education. Nursing, for example. But in our music performance program, we don’t do that because universities are a place for excellence, as well. And if we employed competency‑based education in our piano performance program, Fanya Lin would not be an internationally renowned pianist. Period. So we have to be thoughtful about what we do and why we are doing it that way.

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