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State seeks to boost minority college enrollment


State higher education officials are asking lawmakers for more than $10 million to help boost minority enrollment at the state’s public colleges and universities.

Minorities make up about 17 percent of the state’s population, but only represent about 8 percent of the student population at public post-secondary schools.

“We want to create an expectation in this state … that students need to graduate with a progression of study that prepares them for post-secondary education. We just don’t believe that expectation is there right now,” said David Doty, assistant commissioner for planning and policy for the Utah System of Higher Education.

Lawmakers and education officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of minorities pursuing college degrees as the state’s work force becomes more diverse.

The plan the USHE pitched to lawmakers on Thursday contains five parts providing academic support to minorities once they arrive on campus; doing a better job preparing students through 12th grade for college; increasing financial aid; establishing a mentoring program; and developing a public relations campaign.

“One of the strong criticisms higher education institutions are getting is the lack of minority participation,” said Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville. “This would go a long way toward helping that. The better we get at communicating … those things available for those students, I think the more students are going to be involved.”

The most expensive item on the wish list is offering scholarships to underrepresented students who complete rigorous classes in high school. The Utah System of Higher Education wants as much as $8 million to establish that program.

Gwen Anderson, director of Utah Valley State College’s multicultural center, said providing financial assistance is one of the easiest ways to boost minority enrollment.

She points to national studies that show enrollment among American Indians in the past decade is the only minority group to show growth.

“Every other minority has a minus value. Why is it only Native Americans? Because they have access to funding federally and tribally,” she said.

While lawmakers on the Higher Education Task Force seemed receptive to the proposals Thursday, it’s unclear how much traction they could gain when lawmakers reconvene in January.

The state is already expecting as much as a $260 million surplus, which will likely continue to grow. Gov. Jon Huntsman has said his top priority for that money will be increasing teacher salaries.

Some lawmakers would like to see further cuts in income taxes, which are used to pay for public schools and colleges.

On Thursday, some members of the task force also warned against forcing students onto a college career path if they aren’t prepared for it or have no interest.

“If you try to stick them in a classroom at a university for four years, they’ll go crazy. Even if you manage to get them a degree, they will not use it,” said Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City.

– Associated Press

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