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The Dual-Mission Model

Combining community college accessibility with university rigor, UVU is uniquely situated to set trends in higher education

By Layton Shumway | Photography by

Soon after his appointment as the president of Utah Valley University, Matthew S. Holland visited one of his most distinguished predecessors: Wilson S. Sorensen, the institution's first president. And Sorensen had an important message for Holland: Don't forget the trades.

Vocational and technical training has always been a key part of UVU's mission. When Sorensen became president, the institution was called the Central Utah Vocational School, founded during World War II to provide key workforce training to civilians during a time of war.

A lot has changed since then, both for UVU and its service region. Population in Utah Valley has exploded. Enrollment at UVU has skyrocketed. And the institution continues to add in-demand bachelor and master degrees, as indicated by community need. But Holland has also heeded Sorensen's advice not to abandon UVU's roots. The result is what Holland calls UVU's "dual-mission model" — the practicality and accessibility of a community college, combined with the rigor and seriousness of a four-year teaching institution.

"There just aren't that many universities that do it the way we're doing it," Holland says. "People tend to specialize and focus — they either focus on bachelors, masters, and doctorates, or they focus on certificates and two-year programs as more of a community college. We combine these into one."

Answering the Challenge

As the pathway into America's middle class continues to shift, formal higher education has become more important than ever, Holland says. He argues that even getting an associate degree or certificate requires a more rigorous approach than in the past.

"My view is that we really do have some challenges in higher ed today," Holland says. "Degrees are becoming more expensive, but they're also seeming to become less relevant. They're more theoretical, more tied to what's on the research agenda. And yet they've never been more needed for survival. The world is complex, it's technological, it's filled with diversity of culture and opinion and language. And to navigate that, you need the sophistication of a college degree. It's not enough to have a high school diploma anymore."

Part of UVU's mission is to provide those pathways for a broader student population, including underserved and lower-income communities. UVU's enrollment is open to all, but to help those who might not be prepared to jump straight into a four-year college program, the institution uses a system called structured enrollment. Students who need more preparation can qualify for one-year certificate programs, with full support and resources from the university. If they succeed, they can move into other degree programs.

"Everybody's welcome," Holland says, "but we also send a message of seriousness. You can't just stroll into class and expect to survive in a university environment. If you're not ready, we'll get you ready. But if you are ready, by all means, start going forward. So people in upper-division courses are prepared, and those who aren't are still welcome here, and there is a path for them."

The approach is especially beneficial in Utah Valley. For years, Brigham Young University served the higher-education needs of a largely homogeneous population. But as that population has grown and diversified, the need for another institution to serve Utahns has increased, especially those from underrepresented communities.

"It creates this opportunity for everybody," Holland says. "Anybody willing to work and apply themselves gets a shot here. And they're excellent opportunities. We accept anybody, but we're not just some low-budget, non-demanding kind of place. We've got national award-winning programs where students can be part of transformational activities. That's what I think is so unique — pulling those two things together under one roof."

Holland says UVU isn't trying to be a one-size-fits-all platform — "I think there's a great role for the research institutions," he says — but that UVU is perfectly situated to answer the needs of Utah Valley.

"I think what we've got in Salt Lake City works very well, with Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah," he says. "But in our valley, where we would have to create another institution to replicate that, our model is the most cost-effective way to create the best possible range of opportunities for our students. And that's why I think UVU is an institution for our time, certainly here in Utah Valley, and increasingly in many other places around the nation."

International Attention

During the summer of 2017, Holland took a sabbatical at the University of Oxford, studying the writings of early American leaders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. But as he spoke to higher-education leaders in England, Holland found himself asked more and more frequently about UVU's dual-mission model. Before he knew it, Holland was asked to give a presentation to members of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster — not on his scholarly research, but on distant Utah Valley University.

"They were sometimes more interested in the higher ed things I was discussing than the American political history," Holland says.

Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne, a member of Parliament who co-sponsored Holland's presentation, says the United Kingdom currently faces a "gulf between vocational and academic education," similar to America's.

Again, Holland emphasizes that UVU isn't trying to replace traditional higher education, but rather adapt it to current social and economic needs.

"No one heard me present at Oxford and said, 'Oh my gosh, Matt's figured it out — let's get rid of our model and let's do the dual mission here at Oxford,'" Holland says. "People are going to keep that storied Oxford tradition going, and it's a good thing for the world that they will do that. But people at Oxford said they could see, even in England, that they need some institutions that look like UVU. And I'm enthused that more and more people are responding that way."

Higher-ed publications have taken notice, too. Features on UVU's dual-mission model have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Public Purpose magazine, and Inside Higher Ed in the past year.

"This [model] is the next step in the evolution," Joe Garcia, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, told Inside Higher Ed. "The results speak for themselves. They've been able to do both."

As UVU continues to grow — enrollment is expected to rise to 46,000 students in the next eight years — new programs will be added. In 2016 the institution added five new master degrees, in specialized, in-demand fields like computer science, accounting, and public safety. Three new bachelor degrees in engineering will be offered beginning this year. And as new property is developed in Vineyard and at satellite campuses throughout Utah Valley, more students will have more options than ever.

"We've noticed this growing national and international sense that this dual mission is needed in today's world, and a powerful way to respond to growth," Holland says. "Our greatest growth rate comes in our junior and senior classes. And I think that's significant in what it says about our attention to completion and graduation, but also our attention to drawing students in who may not even have thought they could go on to degrees like that. They're coming here and discovering that they can."