Skip to Content

  • A
  • A
  • A

Head of the Class

Utah Innovates to Reach Big Goals in Education

By By Brad Plothow

In Utah, a place reputed for its creative and hard-working people, business leaders know that a strong work ethic isn’t enough in today’s flattened marketplace. Education is a key prerequisite for workers to remain competitive in an increasingly complex and globally interconnected economy.

“There’s been a sea change,” says William Sederburg, Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education. “The issue is retooling society for new expectations. We’re in the midst of reshaping education to meet these new needs.”

At the center of this retooling is Prosperity 2020, a coalition of industry leaders who want two-thirds of Utah adults to hold a college diploma or vocational certificate by decade’s end. It’s no arbitrary goal: Georgetown University recently published a study indicating that fully 66 percent of Utah jobs will require some post-secondary training by 2020.

“Prosperity 2020 is an effort at improving outcomes. Businesspeople understand that outcomes like value and earnings are paramount. Education understands this, too, and now we’re bringing a goals-intensive approach to aligning our efforts,” says Mark Bouchard, a Utah commercial real estate executive and chair of Prosperity 2020.

The Prosperity 2020 movement underscores an educational revolution that’s happening in Utah. Government and industry have linked arms with the educational community to work toward the common goal of making education a priority. With unprecedented collaboration and innovative thinking as a foundation, Utah is poised to turn a renewed educational focus into legitimate, sustainable economic power.

A Nimble Infrastructure

The Prosperity 2020 vision begins with a robust public education system, and it relies heavily on a seamless handoff to Utah’s institutions of higher education. Utah benefits from a strong collection of public and private colleges and universities. The University of Utah, the State’s flagship public university located in Salt Lake City, is growing its reputation as one of the country’s premier research institutions, has a top-25 MBA program, administers an extensive healthcare and medical research network, and its recent addition to the PAC-12 athletic conference has risen the institution’s national profile.

On the private side, Brigham Young University in Provo is a proven commodity with an international flair. BYU’s accounting, entrepreneurship and public relations programs rank among the top five nationally, and the institution has one of the most impressive international portfolios of any U.S. university. About 70 percent of BYU students are fluent in a second language, and the university boasts the 15th-largest study abroad program in the country.

Utah’s higher education system consists of eight institutions that play specific roles in the larger organism. Salt Lake Community College is the State’s only community college, but many other institutions play a similar role. The State’s eight applied technology colleges offer skilled training in high-demand vocational areas, and regional state colleges such as Snow College in the east and Dixie State College in the south provide open access to career training as well as select baccalaureate degrees. As the State’s land-grant institution, Utah State University offers programs across the State through an extension footprint that reaches into rural Utah.

Weber State University and Utah Valley University are innovative hybrids. Both institutions offer programs ranging from vocational training to high-demand graduate studies, but they are also open-admission institutions. In this way, they play the community college role in their service regions but offer the added benefit of giving students a route to baccalaureate and graduate degrees without transferring. This model, innovated in Utah, has given more students access to higher education without duplicating costs for administration and buildings that would come with a separate community college system.

If enrollment growth is an indication, the experiment is working. WSU has grown by 40 percent since 2006 to more than 25,000 students, and UVU has added nearly 10,000 students since attaining university status in 2008 and is now Utah’s largest public institution with more than 33,000 students.

Bridging Gaps

While not immune to the impact of the ongoing economic doldrums, Utah’s educational infrastructure hasn’t had to endure the truly crippling budget crises captured by stark newspaper headlines in other states. In part, this is due to a culture of collaboration and innovation, and Prosperity 2020 is Exhibit A. The Governor’s Education Excellence Commission is another example of collaboration that cuts across the sectors. Comprised of educational, government and business leaders, the commission launched in 2010 with the goal of establishing “a roadmap for success toward building educational excellence in Utah.”

Utah’s emphasis on innovation is illustrated by a current dialogue about how to measure and deliver education. At the higher ed level, there’s considerable discussion about “the tuning process,” which involves taking a critical look at even the most basic elements of the educational machine. Should the conferral of degrees be based on time (credits earned) or knowledge acquired (demonstration of essential outcomes)? And how can the educational structure be more cognizant of regional employers, graduate institutions and the handoff between public and higher ed? The tuning dialogue addresses these and other key questions.

Utah institutions also employ traditional methods of bridging the gap between public and higher education — a key aspect in reaching the Prosperity 2020 goal. Each institution administers active career pathways programs to help students determine professional interests from an early age, and initiatives such as the K-16 alliance signal that education doesn’t end at high school graduation.

Underprivileged groups receive support through programs such as SLCC’s Partnerships for Accessing Education or WSU’s Dream Weber initiative. The SLCC program offers two-year scholarships to students who come from disadvantaged circumstances and connects them to summer internships and employment opportunities with local businesses. Dream Weber provides free tuition each year to hundreds of students from low-income households or those who are the first in their families to pursue higher education.

Engines of Growth

Utah’s educational institutions take an active approach to spurring economic growth. There isn’t a technology commercialization enterprise in the nation more successful than the University of Utah’s in recent years. After nipping at its heels for some time, the U surpassed the vaunted Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the number of spinoff companies it produced in 2009 and held the No. 1 spot in 2010 as well.

Down the road in Provo, BYU’s technology commercialization operation ranks No. 1 nationally in key areas such as patent applications, spinoff companies and licenses executed per $1 million in research expenditures.

One of the driving factors in the technology commercialization process is attracting world-class research faculty, which is the role of the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative. Codified into State law in 2006, USTAR has provided funding and support to build a physical and intellectual framework in Utah that helped maximize the unique research strengths of the University of Utah and USU, in particular.

“The important input for our success is the number of inventions produced by our faculty, and this is where USTAR is important,” says Jack Brittain, vice president for technology venture development at the University of Utah. “By helping us hire the top faculty inventors in the world, we are increasing the number of opportunities we have to support commercial success. We are currently running at a rate of about 10 percent of our inventions turning into start-ups (we license another 30 percent to existing companies), and we do not see this ratio of success changing.”

The Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership (UCAP) provides another mechanism for leveraging the State’s colleges and universities to grow the economic pie. Whereas USTAR’s focus is on developing new technologies and industries, UCAP is designed to accelerate existing Utah industries through applied research. A joint initiative of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the higher education system, UCAP uses the State’s institutions of higher learning as regional bases to bring concentrated energy to developing key industries such as aerospace, digital media, energy, financial services and life sciences.


Formal education doesn’t have to be limited to The Academy. For proof, look no further than these examples of public and private organizations that partner on education initiatives.

BioInnovations Gateway: This program brings together public and private resources to create an incubator for emerging technologies in the biotech and medical device industries. Located within the Graite Technological Institute, the incubator  provides learning opportunities for students amd contract research services for industry.

Young Women in Science: ATK saw the lack of women entering aerospace fields as a strategic business issue, so the company launched a bi-annual immersive educational experience for girls in grades six through nine. Today, ATK’s Young Women in Science event attracts some 700-900 girls at two events in Utah each year.

L3 University of Manufacturing: Who says higher education isn’t nimble? Resonding to a specific local need, Salt Lake Community College developed a custom electronic technician program to train employees at L3 Communications. The eight-week program is now a template for other custom training sessions that my be developed in the future.