The extinction of Utah's rural colleges
Education »With mergers and expansions, students statewide are enjoying access to four-year programs, but supporters say two-year schools are closer to their communities and teachers are more in touch with students.
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When, by some miracle, Scott Frederick graduated from Manti High School 30 years ago with a C average, he figured he was through with books and classes. The son of a miner, he started working in the energy-extraction industry, as do many other young men from central Utah.

He subsequently bounced between jobs that included audio-visual technician, laser-show producer and photographer. Along the way, he developed a love of reading and came to realize that he wanted the kind of job that required a college degree.

When his house burned down, Frederick used his $6,000 insurance settlement to enroll in the College of Eastern Utah, a small, two-year school in the state's industrial heartland, where elk and pronghorn seem to outnumber people.

"I was really skeptical of the quality of the teachers and education. I had no idea what to expect," says Frederick, a fit and wiry 47-year-old whose graying hair looks like it was styled back when Styx was still cool.

Frederick, who earned an associate's degree in English last year, is an example of the students who depend on small two-year schools like CEU as a stepping stone to economic opportunity, particularly in rural areas. But it's a role that has been quietly eroding across the state for the past two decades. Utah's two-year institutions have become hybrids offering four-year degrees, whose administrators yearn for university status. The changes have unfolded without much planning from the State Board of Regents, and could mean less access for the state's most marginalized residents: minorities, the poor and students whose high schools didn't prepare them well for college.

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A solution or trouble ahead? » Recent events involving CEU punctuate this trend. The little school, which has a satellite campus in Blanding serving more than 300 American Indians, has been pulled into Utah State University's growing orbit of regional campuses and distance-learning sites.

That leaves Snow College in Ephraim as the state's last school serving rural areas that is exclusively committed to career training and associate's level education, where "the freshman class is the most important thing we do," as Snow President Scott Wyatt puts it. Weber and Utah Valley state colleges are now full-fledged universities, while Dixie State in St. George aspires to become a branch campus of the University of Utah, and Southern Utah University has become a baccalaureate destination.

Some observers fear the community college mission may be neglected in the places where that mission is needed most. Rural high schools often lack the breadth of courses to fully prepare students for college, so their graduates benefit from the personal attention they receive at small institutions. Most CEU students are known by advisers, administrators and faculty, who make themselves available, according to student president Willy Woodruff.

"I love that the professors are here to work with the students," said Woodruff, whom an administrator coaxed into performing in a college musical production despite his complete lack of drama experience.

That attention might cost more, because of small classes and a high ratio of staff to students, but it saves the state money if academic success increases. The evidence is apparent in graduation rates. At Snow and CEU, 39 and 33 percent, respectively, of first-time, full-time freshman earn their associate's within three years.

While there's room for improvement, those rates beat the national average and compare favorably with Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley University, the state's largest institutions with comprehensive two-year offerings, where graduation rates lurk in the low-20s.

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USU's rural presence » State leaders feared CEU could not survive long-term, due to a decade-long spate of financial troubles and enrollment slides. This month, lawmakers approved the USU merger with the stated goal of expanding educational opportunities in southeastern Utah, the state's most economically challenged rural corner.

Utah State is committed to "adding value" to CEU's offerings without taking anything away, including its low tuition, says President Stan Albrecht. The Logan-based research university is now the leading provider of higher education in rural Utah, from the remedial to the doctoral. Established under a 19th century federal law designed to broaden access to education in the nation's agricultural communities, USU is well-equipped for this role, technologically and culturally, officials promise.

But policy experts say mergers and mission expansions undermine the community-college role.

"Over time the mission changes. It's less about open access and serving students who need developmental education and support, and much more about transfer [to four-year degrees]. That's the function that is valued within the university environment," says Kay McClenney, who directs the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas.

Most of Utah's institutional leaders endorse the state's direction, saying students increasingly enjoy access to four-year programs in every corner of the state and can "seamlessly" matriculate into the universities.

Those are important values, but they come at a cost. Not everyone wants or needs a four-year degree.

"Universities aren't as close to their communities and able to respond quickly to work force needs," says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. "As these community colleges offer four-year degrees and transition into state universities, will they lose the nimbleness, that focus on community and job skills preparation?"

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A basis for prosperity » Boggs and McClenney say Utah is running against a national tide that is elevating the role of community colleges. The two-year schools have never been more popular, and now account for more than half of all college enrollment. President Barack Obama's education agenda promotes their ability to shore up the nation's sagging rates of education attainment.

Also, in rural areas like southeastern and central Utah, community colleges play a pivotal role in their towns' economic, political and cultural life. People gather on these campuses for public meetings, sporting events and student performances. CEU, for example, is only one of two community colleges in the nation with an accredited natural history museum.

Urban areas, by contrast, offer a wealth of such cultural activities and venues.

Community colleges' main purpose is connecting people to jobs in the regions where they live, but there is evidence Utah and the nation are falling short. The job market increasingly requires a post-secondary degree, yet education attainment among young adults is declining, Utah education leaders say. At least 60 percent of the new jobs 10 years from now will require an associate's degree or better. But among Utahns ages 25 to 34, less than 36 percent hold a college degree, versus the national average of 39 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

Employment data support the argument that education carries broad benefits for the state.

High school graduates earn $22,437 on average, while those with bachelor's earn $45,776, according to the Utah System of Higher Education. College educated people not only contribute more to the economy and tax base, they are less dependent on state assistance. In 2008, people with high school diplomas had unemployment rates double those holding bachelor's degrees.

The days when rural teens could find decent-paying blue-collar employment, as Frederick did, are long gone, says Rick Deaton, the lead adviser at CEU's main feeder school, Carbon High.

"When I got here in 1981, some were dropping out to work in the mines," he says. "They are so automated now, they can do with 100 what 600 once did."

Nationwide, rural community colleges are experiencing extraordinary enrollment growth, according to Stephen Katsinas of the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center. The nation's 553 rural schools account for 64 percent of the nation's community colleges and 38 percent of enrollment. Between 2001 and 2006, rural enrollment grew by more than 1 million students to 3.4 million.

"We have a pent-up demand for higher education services in rural America as we go deeper and deeper into the Information Age," Katsinas says. But rural schools are at a serious disadvantage.

In a Feb. 24 presentation to the U.S. Department of Education, Katsinas described how they are "invisible" in public policy discussions, are less able to absorb cuts in state support and have a much weaker pay structure. Rural professors earn an average of $46,500 versus $60,000 by their suburban counterparts, he reported. Katsinas called this inequity "a ticking time bomb" for rural schools, whose ability to hire and retain good faculty could be threatened.

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A cure for elitism » CEU English professors Curtis and Carrie Icard moved to Price 20 years ago from New York and have no intention of leaving in pursuit of higher pay and prestige.

"People often discuss these issues in the context that colleges promote elitism. It's the absolute cure against elitism," Curtis Icard says. "What college does is level the playing field. An open-access community college is the best at that. You take people who are otherwise victimized by elites; they come not to an ivory tower but a working place like this."

Snow College, serving an agricultural region just over the Wasatch Plateau from Price, may also transition to a four-year school if lawmakers like Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson of Draper, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, have their way. Fiscal conservatives are understandably impatient with the high cost of Utah's rural schools. The state spends much more per student at Snow and CEU, according to Regents' data.

But the numbers fail to account for the benefits associated with small independent schools, nor the hidden instructional costs at the research universities, according to Snow President Scott Wyatt. Freshman courses at the University of Utah, for example, are often taught in large auditoriums by graduate teaching assistants earning a small stipend.

"We teach that exact same class with a full professor in a small class. You're not getting the same product," Wyatt says. "There is a research program supporting that graduate student, but they don't calculate the cost of that program in the teaching of the freshman class."

The state should not replicate the university model statewide because professors teaching in small environments help ensure students make it to graduation, he says.

"We should be expanding this kind of thing. We have seen a decline in the number of college graduates. It's a borderline crisis longer term," says Wyatt, himself a former Republican legislator from Logan. "The best investment we could make is to reverse this slide. We live in a state that's diverse. We need a variety of places for people to go."

Frederick, the former miner, says it would be "tragic" if the merger changes CEU's character. He recalls how faculty helped him when he arrived in the fall of 2007 two weeks after classes had started. His first year he worked part-time while taking a full course load.

"I was making no money, going home and opening the cupboard and thinking, 'Is my brain going to work on peanut butter and jelly?" he says. His journalism professor, Susan Polster, helped him secure scholarships.

"The teachers stunned me with how good they are. They won me over the first month," says Frederick, who is taking a break before pursuing a bachelor's degree. "They're the complete package; they're experts, and they'll do anything for you."

Brian Maffly can be reached at bmaffly@sltrib.com or 801-257-8605. This story was written and reported with assistance from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.

Utah's community colleges: a vanishing species

All nine of Utah's public institutions of higher learning serve a community college mission except for University of Utah, the state's flagship. But most schools increasingly cater to students earning four-year degrees. For example, Weber State and Utah Valley universities, both former community colleges, last year awarded more bachelor's than associate's degrees.

Meanwhile, College of Eastern Utah will merge with Utah State University (USU) later this year; Dixie State College is looking to affiliate with the U.: and Southern Utah University has repositioned itself as a traditional liberal-arts campus serving the whole state.

Only Snow and Salt Lake Community colleges remain as exclusively two-year institutions with well-defined service regions.

Despite its stature as an research institution, USU is now the leading provider of higher education, both two-year and four-year, in rural Utah. The Logan-based university serves 11,000 students around the state on three regional campuses -- Uintah Basin, Tooele and Brigham City -- and 26 distance-learning sites.

Here are brief profiles of Utah's remaining two-year colleges:

CEU (merges with USU later this year)

Where » Price and Blanding

Service region » Carbon, Emery, San Juan and Grand counties

Year established » 1938

Enrollment, degree-seeking, fall 2009 » 2,173

Tuition/fees, 2009-10 » $2,471

Associate's degrees awarded (2009) » 302

3-year graduation rate » 33 percent

Snow College

Where » Ephraim and Richfield

Service region » Sanpete, Sevier, Piute, Beaver, Juab and Millard counties

Year established »1888

Enrollment, degree-seeking, fall 2009 » 3,002

Tuition/fees, 2009-10 » $2,544

Associate's degrees awarded, 2009 » 589

3-year graduation rate » 39 percent

Salt Lake Community College

Where » Taylorsville

Service region » Salt Lake County

Year established »1948

Enrollment, degree-seeking, fall 2009 » 33,774

Tuition/fees, 2009-10 » $2,790

Associate's degrees awarded, 2009 » 3,001

3-year graduation rate » 20 percent

Source » Utah System of Higher Education