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Utah's higher education enrollment is shifting, decreasing at open-enrollment colleges that had experienced unprecedented growth just after the Great Recession and leveling off at the state's more exclusive universities.

After four straight years of huge enrollment gains while Utah suffered through high rates of unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosures, Utah's public colleges and universities attracted about 2,700 fewer students this fall compared with last year. Still, nearly 15 percent more signed up for classes this fall than in 2008.

Statistics indicate that more, better-prepared students are signing up at the University of Utah — where enrollment this fall rose 2.3 percent. Many of the additional students at the U. completed basic courses at open-enrollment institutions — Utah Valley University, Dixie State College and Salt Lake Community College. At those institutions, earlier admission deadlines and more stringent academic requirements are among the reasons for enrollment drops of between 2.5 percent and 9.2 percent this fall.

Utah's open-enrollment institutions for too long admitted students who were not ready for college and too often not committed to sticking with it. The policy called "structured enrollment" adopted by UVU and already in place at Weber State University does more to screen students and help them remedy their academic weaknesses. Higher grade-point averages and ACT scores are required, but those who don't meet the standard for full admission are directed to remedial help.

A healthier employment picture is another reason for the enrollment decrease, as some who might otherwise continue taking classes to hone skills are getting jobs instead and, hopefully, putting those new skills to use. A change in the minimum age for Mormon missionaries, from age 19 to 18 for men, and to 19, down from 21, for women, will be another factor affecting college enrollment in coming years.

All the numbers point to a more effective higher education system where each institution has a specific role. All, that is, except the overall enrollment decline of 1.6 percent. It is acceptable this year as some new policies are put in place, but it should not be allowed to become a long-term trend. Utahns need training to fill jobs for businesses and industries that are moving to Utah. Not everyone needs a college degree, but everyone does need career training.

Education officials should encourage all Utah's youth to graduate from high school and get further training at the appropriate college or university. Legislators should adequately fund public schools so graduates are ready to take that step.

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