Is there a crisis brewing in American higher education?

More and more young people are wondering if college is worth the prohibitive cost, but a degree has never been more important

By Matthew Holland, President of Utah Valley University (UVU)

As our world becomes more global and technology-driven, our need for a talented and educated workforce is vital. But therein lies a major conundrum: the cost of college has put it out of reach for many American families. 

Numerous American institutions of higher education attempt to address this issue by trying to attract bigger endowments and offering financial help to low-income students. These are all worthy endeavours, but at Utah Valley University we’ve taken a different approach – one that makes higher education available to as many students as possible at the lowest cost possible.  

UVU started as a vocational school in 1941, but instead of abandoning that model as we grew – as most other institutions in our situation have – we kept it, and at the same time, became a full-fledged four-year teaching university in 2008. By embracing and experimenting with a dual model of providing a vocational, community college education alongside an advanced, four-year education, we have been able to reduce tuition costs for students while enjoying a remarkable return on investment. The State of Utah essentially gets two schools for the price of one. We use the same set of buildings and have the same faculty and administration for both models.

The benefits for students are even greater. Many students who come through the traditional community college system think that’s all there is for them or, because the option of continuing their studies can be logistically and financially complicated, they end their studies with a two-year associate’s degree or a certificate. 

At UVU, the path to a four-year degree is significantly more accessible for our community college/vocational students. They can seamlessly continue on the path from a 2-year degree to a 4-year without having to rematriculate. We provide dozens of programs for students who may be interested in taking this path, and our numbers show that many of them are voting with their feet. UVU now is the largest university in Utah with 35,000 students. 

While we now accept the most incoming freshman of any institution in the state, most of our growth can be attributed to juniors and seniors staying and not transferring to complete their education elsewhere. Some are even continuing on to a master’s degree program at UVU.

Making higher education more inclusive for all is a core part of our mission

Making higher education more inclusive for all is a core part of our mission. UVU has an open admissions system – you apply, you get in. Once accepted, students are guided by structured enrolment standards. They can move into an advanced four-year program if they have achieved specific standards, or can prove they’re college ready after a year’s worth of work. If they can’t meet four-year advanced degree standards, they are carefully guided to a 2-year or certificate program, which can provide them a valuable education or better prepare them to qualify for an advanced degree. 

Our faculty and staff are specifically trained to guide students along this path whether it be toward vocational, two-year or advanced degree tracks. This structured enrolment approach enables us to be open for all while ensuring serious academic rigour and advancement. 

Our community college program helps us be inclusive and we actively outreach to underserved populations, who may otherwise forego a college education. We are committed to providing technical and vocational education, which we’ve actually expanded by adding a number of certificates and two-year degrees. Simultaneously, we’ve built a strong teaching university with bachelor’s and targeted master’s programs that are tied to the immediate needs of our community (cybersecurity, bio-technology, autism studies, and personal financial planning, etc.), leavened with a robust general education program and a campus atmosphere filled with intellectual exchange and the creative arts.  

Last month, we unveiled a massive stained glass window project called “Roots of Knowledge”—a ten-foot high, two hundred-foot wide tribute to the finest human achievements in art, architecture, music, law, literature, philosophy, medicine, science and technology.

We have taken other steps to reduce costs that don’t affect our students and staff. We have a transparent budgeting process where every significant budget request has to be publicly justified every year. Also, if any previously earmarked funds prove that they don’t comport with our mission, they’re repurposed and used toward things that are more essential. 

We’ve resisted tempting and traditional higher education trappings, such as the enormously expensive college football program synonymous with American university life, and the alluring call to focus on research vs. teaching. Our choices have included playing Division 1 men’s soccer instead of football, to insisting our faculty teach full time as they stay engaged with their disciplines.  We also haven’t started any research or PhD programs; we remain a school that is focused primarily on undergraduate teaching. Because of these calculated moves, we have managed to cut student fees for the last two years, and UVU has one of the lowest tuition rates in the nation for a regional teaching university.

With our unique dual model, UVU gives a wide range of students a full spectrum of practical education to choose from. We think it’s an idea whose time has come. When a well-rounded baccalaureate degree is more needed than ever, and when college has become unaffordable to so many, we believe that UVU offers a very powerful answer to these pressing problems. 

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