Here are some thoughts that I ask people to consider/improve for the upcoming legislative session.
Utah should attack the two enemies to college completion—time and money—by addressing (1) college readiness, (2) the college-funding model, (3) most-affordable pathways to degrees, (4) technical high schools, and (5) flexible completion programs.
I. College Readiness
Utah’s high school graduates are not adequately prepared for college. Unprepared students typically do not complete college. Utah should do 3 things to promote college readiness.
A. Raise Expectations
Rather than sit back and passively bemoan incoming students’ lack of preparation, Utah colleges must promote college readiness by imposing standards for incoming freshmen. The 2 research institutions (the U of U and USU) should require 4 years of high school math. All Utah colleges should require that incoming freshmen meet certain standards indicative of success. For example, students failing to meet baseline ACT scores in math should be required to show willingness and ability through completion of the College-Readiness Assessment Tool (CRAT) currently being developed by the Utah System of Higher Education to (1) specifically assess each student’s math readiness and (2) specifically prescribe and deliver a remedial curriculum for each student. This necessary change should not close the door to any willing student. Rather, raised expectations will encourage Utah high schools and high school students to actively prepare for collegiate success, instead of wasting resources by doing things like taking office assisting, weight lifting, guitar and other fluffy electives during the senior year.
B. Promote Early Math Completion
We know that math trips up so many college students. And we know that math skills quickly diminish. Yet, shockingly, we do not require freshmen to fulfill their math requirement. Let’s require that. Better still, let’s promote success, by awarding small scholarships to students who start college with their math requirement completed through concurrent enrollment or an AP course. These are the students who will complete college. Let’s provide incentives for high school students to join this elite group.
C. Better Define “Math Ready”
Steps A and B should reduce the massive amounts of dream-killing remedial math taught at Utah colleges. But, some need for remediation will remain. Let’s be more direct about satisfying that need. “Math ready” should mean possessing the skills necessary to take a degree-related math course. Currently, before Utah college students take their degree-required math course(s), they often are herded through a battery of unnecessary full-semester developmental math courses that add significant time and money to the college experience. This is insanity. If we intended to plant more traps to ensnare dreams of a college degree, we’d be hard pressed to think of anything worse. This is an antiquated model that other states are abandoning en masse. “Math ready” means possessing the basic skills necessary to take a degree-required course. These skills can be polished in boot camps and applied settings, rather than semester-long courses.
II. College Funding Model
Funding for Utah colleges currently does not account for student success. Colleges bring in revenue by marching students through the front door. No fiscal significance is paid to retaining and graduating students. As a result, our efforts are pointed too heavily toward recruitment of tuition dollars. Recruitment is not retention. In fact, current recruitment efforts might be contrary to retention.
I suggest we make two fundamental changes to the way we fund higher education.
A. Fund Completion, Not Recruitment
Instead of funding institutions on the basis of students walking through the front door, we need to correlate funding to students walking successfully out the back door. Let’s start by funding proven success models—graduate programs at our two research institutions (requiring that they share and coordinate research opportunities with our other 6 institutions). Beyond that, let’s inform all institutions that, over the next 2 years, we will tie a percentage of funding to retention, student completion plans, and other indicia of success. Over five years, we’ll tie a percentage of funding to completion and jobs upon completion.
In government, we get want we fund. In higher education, we need to fund completion and jobs.
B. Bring the Best and Brightest to Utah
Students who come from other states often stay and help build Utah. Let’s strengthen our economy and our colleges by inviting the best and brightest to come to Utah. Currently, out-of-state students typically pay much higher tuition that in-state students. We make exceptions to that rule for many reasons that don’t relate to talent, such as geographical proximity to Utah. Let’s allow our institutions to offer tuition discounts to above-average students from other states.
Each institution would determine its median GPA and ACT for incoming students. Colleges could discount non-resident tuition rates for students who exceed that measure. These students would help raise the academic quality of our student body.
III. Promote Most-Affordable Pathways to Degrees (MAP Degrees)
Remember: time and money are the enemies of college completion. The cost of college discourages some students from starting, and it prevents other students from finishing. In Texas, Governor Perry is attempting to attack this problem through his “$10,000 degrees.” Looking at our existing programs, I realized that Utah could offer degrees starting at $3,000 (total cost!). Simple alignment adjustments and promotion are all that is required to place college within the reach of many Utah families.
I call these degrees “Most-Affordable Pathway Degrees” or MAP Degrees. As explained here, MAP Degrees take advantage of high school concurrent enrollment courses, the New Century Scholarship, and 2 years of residential college—with all courses counting toward aligned associate and bachelor degrees.
IV. Technical High Schools
Utah must place applied-technology education on even footing with college education. Currently, Utah provides far more advantages to high school students looking to attend college than to high school students looking to enter a technical career.
Currently, high school students can enter Early-College High Schools (ECHSs), which are charter high schools located on college campuses. Through fee-sharing arrangements, the colleges and charter high schools partner to offer the students a curriculum that simultaneously meets the requirements of high school graduation and an associate degree. The ECHSs are a godsend to students who are ready for the challenge of college courses while in high school and who want the significant financial boost that the ECHSs provide toward higher education expenses.
Along those same lines, Utah needs to develop Technical High Schools, which would be charter high schools located on Applied-Technology campuses. Through fee-sharing arrangements, the ATCs and Technical High Schools would partner to offer the students a curriculum that would simultaneously meet the requirements of high school graduation (or a GED) and an applied-technology certificate. This would be a godsend to students who are ready for the challenge of applied-technology courses while in high school and who want the significant financial boost that the Technical High Schools would provide them for (1) the workplace, (2) college, and (3) the workplace/college. Let me explain this last sentence.
Remember, time and money are a college student’s enemies. Lots of our students don’t complete college, because it takes too long and costs too much. Graduates of our Technical High Schools, however, would have a significant advantage. First, the ATC certificates would give students increased earning power to pay for college. Second, through existing articulation agreements with Utah colleges, the students’ certificates would automatically give them 1 full-year of college credit. So, think about that. By pursuing something they want to do in their junior and senior years of high school, the Technical High School students actually would be academically ahead of where they would otherwise have been. They will have earning power to pay for college, and they will have a full-year of college credit. Should they decide to go forward toward an associate or bachelor degree, the Technical High School students will have significantly abated the time and money menace.
V. Flexible Completion Programs
BYU, a private institution, enjoys a tremendous college completion rate, despite many students interrupting their studies for missions, marriage, and childbirth. Part of that high completion rate is explained by the high preparation level of BYU students. Part of that rate also is explained by BYU’s efforts to work with former students who require added flexibility through its bachelor of general studies program.
Utah has many citizens with some college experience but whose lives have moved them away from college. Utah colleges must develop flexible online programs to better allow completion opportunities for these students. The Legislature should provide funding for 1 or 2 pilot programs to improve/implement flexible completion programs (i.e., online general studies degrees).
The simple items discussed in this paper will significantly improve completion rates at Utah colleges. Most of these items require little new funding. We can make these changes this year, and, thereby, improve our colleges and the lives of our citizens.