Rising operational costs, lower student enrollment and a growing need for technical training will soon permanently alter the complexion of College of Eastern Utah.
All of the factors led to a perfect educational storm in eastern Utah. Last Thursday, the Utah State Board of Regents decided to merge CEU and the Southeast Applied Technology Center.
Founded in 1938, CEU has primarily been considered an academic institution or a junior college. But CEU has a significant vocational side because of the college's blue collar surroundings.
Until the late 1990s, the school had a viable coal mining training program and several strong vocational programs that were taught at the McDonald Career Center. Students could obtain certificates or pursue an associate's degree in the programs.
But the programs began to change when the CEU administration was altered by hiring a president from outside the local area. Programs like mining were eliminated and vocational education was down played. The custom fit training that had been a function of CEU was separated from the college and became a new type of higher education institution.
SEATC, the newly formed institution, did not have a campus, but operated in rented space or even in businesses that requested educational programs for employees or potential employees.
After the legislature passed a bill in 2001, SEATC and eight similar educational institutions around the state fell under the umbrella of Utah College of Applied Technology.
As a result of demographic changes between baby boomers and younger generations, Utah colleges are seeing trends that have been felt across the nation.
Recently the state office of higher education reported that college enrollment is down as much as a 1,000 students across Utah. About half of the state's higher education institutions are experiencing declining student numbers, while the other half are witnessing increasing enrollments.
CEU was reported to be in the former group ,with a decline of more than 130 students for fall semester 2006 compared to 2005.
Meanwhile, UCAT is gaining in enrollment.
CEU has a campus filled with functional buildings and fewer students.
"The enrollment decline at CEU cannot be sustained at the present rate," said higher education commissioner Richard Kendall during a public meeting last week. "We need to do something to provide a viable, sustainable way of doing things that benefits both colleges."
Last spring, CEU president Ryan Thomas told the state board of higher education that the school would fall $350,000 behind on its budget at the end of the fiscal year on June 30 because of declining enrollment.
During the late 1980s, CEU constructed new dorms in an attempt to attract students out of the area. While the idea initially took off, fewer students have been showing up to occupy the rooms in recent years.
Meanwhile, Carbon and Emery school districts have seen significant declines in the number of students going through the systems as populations grow older. Since about 70 percent of the students at CEU come from the local area, declining enrollment in public schools has impacted the college.
On the other hand, the older population fits into UCAT's mission of custom fit and technical training for people who are working or at the age when they want to start careers.
For younger people, UCAT has provided an alternative for students who may not fit into the regular college programs.
"UCAT is nothing like CEU," said Alice Israelson of Emery County at the public meeting. "My son was brought over to the tech school by rehab and he has succeeded because of it. The program made it so that he could go on to college."
Israelson's son told Kendall and other education officials that, without UCAT, he could have never gone on with his education.
"I was comfortable going there," said Jared Israelson. "I spent a whole year going to classes there and I could have never come onto this campus and done that. Now I have the confidence to come here and take classes."
In recent months, the regents had been studying what to do with two programs, which financially and enrollment-wise seemed to be heading in opposite directions. But combining the two is not an entirely new concept. Ever since the creation of SEATC, CEU has handled many of the tech center's administrative functions.
However, UCAT schools and board view their mission as different because of what they teach and the kinds of students they serve.
The move to combine CEU and SEATC in Carbon County may be only the beginning. According to Kendall, the way Utah has the two systems is an anomaly in the country, not the norm.
"We had a person from the higher education system from the Seattle area visit us recently and she looked at the two tiers of educational systems and wondered what it was," pointed out Kendall at the Monday meeting. "She told me that all those functions were handled by the junior colleges in the area. I have also heard that from others around the country. We are the ones who are operating differently."
The meeting also had attendees who opposed to the change or wanted to consider the possibility for a longer period of time.
"When I wanted to go to school, I didn't want to go to college," said Lisha Israelson. "But after going to the tech school, I then decided I did want to got to CEU and I am here now taking classes."
Ann Evans, director of the Carbon County Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that college is not for everyone and SEATC has offered a viable alternative for many people.
"From the chamber's perspective, not all businesses are looking for someone with a degree," stated Evans. "The ATC has certification programs that businesses can send people through or the individuals can afford to pay for themselves. It provides the flexibility for people like single moms who need to go through school and work at the same time."
Price Mayor Joe Piccolo suggested that, if the merger were to happen, the schools should consider creating a community committee to oversee the process.
One issue raised at the public meeting was the question of how the two higher education institutions' employees would be handled.
Under the CEU program, professors and instructors are compensated based on classes taught and credit hours, while UCAT instructors work based on the 40-hour work week.
With a merger, the differences will have to be rectified and equalized in some way.
Many of the individuals associated with UCAT administration and boards have not been happy about the process in which the merger idea was put together.
Some UCAT representatives feel that the technology college's points of view are being ignored by the decision makers.
"We aren't doing this to save money," said Kendall toward the end of the meeting. "CEU has been doing a lot of the administrative functions for UCAT over the years while they have been leasing space for classes and renting equipment. Together, they can just be more efficient. We don't want to change what UCAT is doing but to find a way to do what both schools do better. The intent of the study was to see if the two schools could work together without competing with each other. We just can't think old school anymore.".