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In October, Utah's governor praised the state's technical college system as a "significant player" toward his goal of a better qualified workforce.
Less than a month later, a legislative review slammed the Utah College of Applied Technology (UCAT) for inflating its graduation rates in order to meet the governor's "66 by 2020" objective of two in three Utah adults having a post-high school degree at the start of the next decade leading lawmakers to question whether the state can meet such a goal.
UCAT began "supplementing program completions with smaller achievements" in 2013, the November audit found. The school added individual courses and job trainings to the data, the report found, and also counted students who left school to work.
The apparent exaggeration of UCAT's success rankled lawmakers at the Capitol this week.
"We can't count some students and not count others," said state Sen. Howard Stephenson during a Wednesday legislative panel, "in order to cook the books toward our 66 percent."
Stephenson added that he's concerned that a student who had finished two programs could be counted by the state as two different graduates.
"You probably are correct," replied Rob Brems, president of the Utah College of Applied Technology, "in that there's some double-counting occurring."
Utah Higher Education Commissioner David Buhler agreed.
"I don't know that we know," Buhler said, "what each other are counting."
The separate state agencies allow students to build on each other's certificates, having them count toward a two-year degree that could eventually roll into a bachelor's. It's part of a bigger push from higher education officials to make degrees more "stackable."
UCAT administrators told auditors that the school's actions were an attempt to bring the state closer to its goal of more Utah adults having some kind of certificate from cabinetmaking to advanced physics by 2020, according to audit supervisor Tim Bereece.
The Education Interim Committee meeting this week struck a different tone from Gov. Gary Herbert's signed message in UCAT's annual October report, which said the school had "responded to this challenge enthusiastically by expanding its offering" of certificate programs "and graduating more students than ever before."
But when high schoolers and already-employed workers in UCAT's job-training seminars are taken out of the equation, the school's completion rate has actually dipped slightly from last year by as much as 3.5 percent, according to an October report from the eight colleges across the state.
On Wednesday, Stephenson and others questioned whether it is possible to find out exactly how many Utahns have degrees and certificates.
UCAT, like Utah's public universities and colleges, is responsible for tracking its own progress toward the two-thirds goal. The benchmark is based on a 2010 report from Georgetown University that predicted each state's workforce needs.
UCAT contends it is almost halfway there. About 46 percent of its roughly 94,000-certificate quota has been already awarded. But this year alone, about 10 percent of those certifications were for job trainings as brief as 60 hours, according to the audit.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, the South Jordan Republican awaiting Senate approval from his colleagues to become UCAT president in January, did not weigh in on the audit during the panel but said afterward that he's "not alarmed."
Osmond said the school's newer, shorter programs are a response to "changing demands" from industries. The college just needs clarity from the Legislature, he said, on how to report its numbers.
But he does not believe the state is poised to meet the 2020 deadline.
"I question its achievability based on where we're at right now," Osmond said, "and what we're doing right now."
More courses in tech fields, as well as more financial incentives, he said, are needed to lure students to UCAT.
Herbert's education adviser, Tami Pyfer, said in a prepared statement that there is a tough road ahead as schools' benchmarks get steeper.
Still, the "most important outcome," she said, "is the positive progress we've made in improving the educational attainment of Utahns."
At the Legislature on Wednesday, Brems agreed with some of the audit's findings but took issue with its terminology.
"We understand that can look complex," Brems said. "I wouldn't say we agree with the word 'inflated,'" he added, explaining that certificates are now awarded for short-term programs in an effort to acknowledge students' work and an improving economy. "I don't think we would agree with the word 'diluted.' "
Brems is retiring and is set to serve a mission in Barcelona, Spain, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Before taking over, Osmond said, he will step down from both the Legislature and his job at Certiport, a company that provides digital exams and certification programs to schools including UCAT.
The Utah System of Higher Education, which is responsible for the bulk of degrees needed to meet Herbert's goal, also appears to be on track. It has given out 158,000 diplomas since 2011. That's about 47 percent of the overall objective of 336,000 by 2020, according to its internal Oct. 19 progress report.
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