Tech colleges poised to play bigger roles in Utah’s higher education landscape
While college enrollment is mostly down across the country, attendance in Utah has largely gone in the other direction. But there’s one area of growth in particular that points to the larger shifts taking place across the state’s higher education landscape.
All but one of the state’s eight technical colleges had more students this year compared to last, according to data from the Utah System of Higher Education.
While the overall numbers are small compared to attendance at the state’s degree-granting schools — ranging from 810 students at Tooele Technical College to 4,035 at Ogden-Weber Technical College — the growth reflects both changing attitudes about higher education and Utah’s heightened focus on connecting what students learn to the needs of the broader economy.
“At the end of the day, we really have two customers,” said USHE commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme. “We have the students coming and paying their tuition. But we also have the industry, because they're the ones hiring those individuals.”
The concept of workforce alignment has always been at the center of technical colleges’ missions, said Ogden-Weber Technical College President Jim Taggart. But it’s increasingly important, he said, given widespread anxiety about student loan debt and more students looking for cheaper and more flexible options.
Technical education is also part of a larger puzzle. When USHE was created in 2020 — incorporating all of the state’s public colleges and technical schools under one organization — part of the motivation was to give students easier access to move between schools.
One of the best examples of that at Ogden-Weber, Taggart said, is its practical nursing program. Once they complete it, students can go straight into a registered nurse associate degree program run by Weber State University, though still taught at Ogden-Weber’s campus. He said nearly all students go on to complete that degree and many continue past that to earn a bachelor’s through WSU’s hybrid or online programs.
“That saves the taxpayer, it saves both the college and university money because we're sharing resources and we're producing more registered nurses,” Taggart said.
Where once technical education was seen as a safety net for people who couldn't get a four-year degree, more and more people are using it both as a stepping stone to an advanced degree or to sharpen their skills after having already graduated.
Over the last two years, 38% of students at Ogden-Weber have a bachelors, masters or Ph.D. or at least some completed coursework at a traditional four-year university. That’s up from about 20% a few years ago.
“It's no longer tech ed is a separate track,” he said. “Technical education is the best way for you to leverage your abilities.”
Woolstenhulme said despite technical colleges' relatively small footprint in the state, the growth seems to be concentrated in industries with the highest employment outlook and wages, such as healthcare and transportation. He said that’s a good sign.
“Those are the ones I get excited about,” he said. “What I focus on is, what is the industry telling us we need more of and are we producing more of that skill set?”