Straight Up Conversation: A Community College and a University Rolled Into One

Astrid Tuminez is president of Utah Valley University, which offers career and technical education, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees under one roof, all while maintaining open admissions. Before coming to Utah Valley, Tuminez was an executive at Microsoft, where she oversaw corporate, external, and legal affairs for Southeast Asia. I recently talked with her about Utah Valley’s intriguing model, and here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: What is Utah Valley University [UVU]?

Astrid Tuminez: Utah Valley University is an integrated university and community college that educates every student for success in work and life. The university’s mission, as we know it today, was established in 2008, yet our history of providing vital vocational training dates back to 1941. In the 1960s, general education and associate degrees were added. In 1993, the institution’s name changed to Utah Valley State College, and we began offering our first bachelor’s degrees. Since 2008, UVU has expanded to offer master’s degrees, in addition to bachelor’s and associate degrees, as well as career and technical education.

Rick: You’ve just touched on this a bit, but can you say more about what makes UVU unusual?

Astrid: Within the national higher education landscape, UVU is unique in that it is an open-admission, dual-mission university that combines the flexibility and accessibility of a community college with the prestige and rigor of a four-year teaching university. In Utah, however, we are one of three integrated dual-mission universities that serve nearly 50 percent of all Utah students enrolled in the state’s system of higher education. Among these Utah schools, UVU stands out—not only for the size of its student body but the access we offer our students to world-class resources and facilities, such as the new Noorda Center for the Performing Arts and the forthcoming new building to house the Woodbury School of Business.

Rick: As you see it, what are the advantages of having a community college and four-year university under one roof?

Astrid: The most important advantage may be accessibility. With the range of options available to prospective students, we’re able to offer flexible pathways to a vast array of learners—the high school graduate who knows for sure she wants to work in computer science; the young adult who’s still deciding between automotive and construction trades; the middle-aged parent who wants to finish the associate degree they started 15 years ago before unexpected life circumstances; and the person who isn’t sure whether to pursue a bachelor’s or associate degree but wants the flexibility to find out. Another advantage is the de-siloing of knowledge. We call this nonprejudicial education for the 21st century. We don’t prejudice one form of learning over another. The trades can be as valuable and fulfilling as traditional college courses and majors. And students are certainly advantaged by having a rich array of options for a meaningful higher education experience.

Rick: OK. So what are the disadvantages?

Astrid: There is an unfortunate stigma that surrounds community colleges in America. While our society as a whole has made great strides in becoming more inclusive, the culture surrounding higher education is still very much one of exclusivity and exception. With this in mind, some outsiders see our community college offerings as a dilution of the quality of our four-year degree programs. People tend to shed those concerns once they spend some time here and see that our university is a rigorous and top-notch institution with many first-rate programs. Every year, we place our students in the very top graduate schools in the U.S. and the U.K.

Rick: Can you tell me a bit about your students? Who attends UVU?

Astrid: Utah isn’t the first place that comes to mind when people think of diversity, but UVU’s campus is incredibly diverse, with students from 74 countries. Many of them are considered “nontraditional,” as 24 percent of our current students are age 25 or older, so, yes, a considerable amount of our students do have career experience. And 80 percent of UVU’s student body is employed, including a 27 percent share of the student body that works more than 31 hours per week. We also have many parents enrolled at UVU—17 percent of our students support at least one child. We are perhaps most proud of the fact that 36 percent of our students are first-generation students, meaning they are the first in their families to go to college.

Rick: Why do you think nontraditional students, in particular, gravitate to Utah Valley?

Astrid: UVU is far more flexible than many universities with traditional models that place students on fixed paths or expect students to have “standard” credentials. We are open admission. In many cases, our nontraditional students have some college experience and have earned credits toward a degree, even if they earned those credits a decade ago. UVU makes the credit-transfer process as easy as possible. We’re also among the most affordable universities in the nation.

Rick: You just mentioned “affordability.” How much does UVU cost? And how does your dual mission play into that?

Astrid: While our annual tuition rate is just over $5,800, 46 percent of our students receive financial aid. The average out-of-pocket tuition cost for a UVU student comes in at just under $1,700. Our dual mission is ideal for keeping costs down because it enables us to share and coordinate instructional costs, such as faculty and advising services, and noninstructional costs, such as technology infrastructure.

Rick: Selective institutions are sometimes criticized for closing the doors of opportunity to deserving students. On the flip side, of course, some criticize open admissions for inviting ill-equipped students to rack up debt and then drop out. What are your thoughts on all this, and what’s UVU’s philosophy?

Astrid: Why shouldn’t anyone who wants a college degree be allowed to strive for one? At UVU, we admit more students than most universities, but we don’t allow anyone in and then let them flounder. We believe everyone should have a chance as long as they are willing to work for it. We have pathways and interventions for students depending on their level of preparedness. Any newly admitted student who does not meet “college-ready” standards is guided through a series of required steps including orientation, mandatory advising, and supported academic courses. These interventions help underprepared students achieve their goals. At UVU, we routinely encounter stories of students who have unlocked their human potential and succeeded against all odds. It’s a powerful illustration of the true purpose of education.

Rick: As I understand, Utah Valley offers “stackable credentials” for students. Just what does that mean, and how do those work?

Astrid: What we mean by “stackable credentials” is that students can start by pursuing a certificate program or a two-year degree and then—without changing institutions—utilize the courses they have already completed to advance to a bachelor’s degree program. Think of it as “leveling up.” For example, a student completes a certificate in information systems. Under our system, that student may choose to continue and earn an associate degree and then a bachelor’s degree in information technology. By following a stackable-award pathway within UVU, the transition to the next degree level along that pathway is much more seamless than many community college students experience when transferring to universities.

Rick: How do you make sure those credentials and skills are well-matched to what employers need?

Astrid: One of UVU’s three pillars is “engage.” We put engaged learning at the forefront of our curriculum, so we are often placing our students directly into nearby companies and industries for hands-on training. We are fortunate to have a budding technology hub called Silicon Slopes just down the road from UVU’s main campus. We keep in frequent contact with the community’s business leaders and the state legislature to ensure that the relationships between UVU and these organizations are mutually beneficial. We train our students with the skills necessary to support and grow the local economy. At the same time, we receive feedback from the business community and state on how to make our education stronger.

Rick: On that note, what kind of student outcomes are you seeing? And for those who go straight to careers, are the jobs they’re getting well-matched to their skill level?

Astrid: One year after graduation, 86 percent of graduates are employed. Of that percentage, 80 percent work in positions related to the degree they earned at UVU. And those percentages are similar at three and five years after graduation. College Scorecard data indicate our students who received federal financial aid have a high return on investment, due to the average cost of education compared to the ratio of salary 10 years after entering UVU. Further, UVU regularly conducts surveys of employers of our graduates. The surveys indicate that employers are very satisfied with the overall job knowledge and skills of UVU graduates. For example, in a recent survey of regional employers who had hired UVU graduates, 93 percent of employers rated the quality of UVU’s education “good” or “very good.”

Rick: Do you think other higher ed. systems across the country should implement the dual-mission model? What advice would you offer about making it work?

Astrid: As I’ve mentioned, the dual-mission model has been quite successful in Utah, as dual-mission universities educate more than half of the state’s ever-expanding population. There are other states with institutions that have similar models, such as Florida and Washington, but I think this is a model with promise for the whole country. That said, not every university should be open admissions or teaching-focused. Research universities fill a critical need. Similarly, not every community college has the location, population, or economic environment to support bachelor’s degrees. In some instances, where there is consideration of mergers between universities and community colleges that are near or next to each other, as in Wisconsin, it is extremely important that all parties involved in the discussion are committed to creating a dual-mission institution that is inclusive and accessible to the many different types of learners in the local community. It is also important to have the support of state leaders and input from the business community.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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