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Growing pains hit Utah’s technical colleges

Nearly all of Utah’s eight technical colleges have seen increased demand and attendance over the last several years.
Chris Austin
Nearly all of Utah’s eight technical colleges have seen increased demand and attendance over the last several years.

Utah’s technical colleges are beginning to face what has become a familiar challenge in the state — managing growth.

Nearly all of the state’s eight schools have seen increased demand and attendance over the last several years. That trend has been especially true during the pandemic as more students are looking to technical education as a relatively cheap and quick option for building job-specific skills or a stepping stone to other programs.

Colleges say that’s leading to overcrowded facilities, waitlists on courses and difficulties attracting enough faculty and staff to meet demand.

“Dixie Tech is literally bursting at the seams,” said president Kelle Stephens.

Stephens was one of five college presidents who briefed lawmakers during the Higher Education appropriations committee Monday on the challenges that lie ahead.

She said Dixie Technical College, which has grown from a hodgepodge of buildings around St. George into a centralized, modern campus, is now constrained by space and forced to turn some students away.

Enrollment has grown about 70% since 2018, she noted, with attendance during the 2021 fiscal year up to 1,934 students. She said the school has had to limit space for students who are “exploring” opportunities, rather than those who know what they want to study and can commit to studying full-time.

Meanwhile, with record low unemployment in the state, school leaders say they’re feeling pressure from local businesses to train more people for high-demand jobs in fields like nursing, auto repair and welding.

And like almost every other segment of the economy, technical colleges are struggling to hold on to faculty and staff, leaders said. Several said the constraints have forced them to make some difficult cuts, automating services where possible and adding responsibilities to staffers’ plates. And that’s all while trying to expand offerings and better support students’ progress and mental health.

Chad Campbell, president of Bridgerland Technical College in Logan, said one strategy they’ve used in the past was to replace salaried employees who leave with hourly ones, but found that was a big mistake.

“When we don’t provide employees with a career commitment, that includes necessary benefits, paid time off or health insurance, we have a never-ending revolving door of employees,” he said.

College leaders are asking lawmakers for millions more in funding this year. Most of it would go to expanding programs, hiring more staff and building upgrades.

Corrected: January 25, 2022 at 4:45 PM MST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the student population of Dixie Tech.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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