Mike Lee: Make Utah even greater

September 8, 2016

Utahns have a lot to be proud of. We’re one of the happiest and healthiest states in the nation. We have one of the lowest poverty levels and the lowest level of income inequality of any state. Our economy ranked second in the nation for job growth last year, and CNBC named Utah the top state for doing business this year.

Despite all that we have accomplished, we cannot rest on our laurels. Not only are neighboring states looking to emulate our success, but unaddressed policy challenges are creating opportunities we should capitalize on.

Utah already has a thriving technology sector, but we have a chance to make it even stronger. We can bring high-tech companies and jobs from expensive coastal cities to Utah. But first we must work collaboratively — across all sectors — to make sure that we have one of the best and most educated workforces in the country.

That’s why I invited business, education, and technology leaders from around Utah, and from across the country, to join me at this year’s Utah Solutions Summit, which will convene on Thursday, Sept. 1. Our own Gov. Gary Herbert and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will be there to talk about what they have done to improve higher education at the state level. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina will also be there to discuss what businesses are looking for as they compete to attract and retain an effective workforce.

We’ll hear from the presidents of several of Utah’s colleges and universities — which are the best and most dynamic in the world — as well as representatives from some of Utah’s most successful manufacturing companies that are stepping up to help educate the next generation of machinists, engineers and welders through their own career- and technical-training programs.

The goal of this year’s Solutions Summit is to examine the challenges and opportunities facing Utah’s workforce from every angle. When it comes to empowering Utah’s workers, there’s no one right answer, just as there are no dumb questions.

As a federal legislator, one of the questions that concerns me the most is how does federal education policy make it harder for today’s students — and would-be students — to acquire the skills they need to succeed in our competitive economy?

We know that too many young Americans are borrowing far too much money chasing increasingly expensive degrees that are worth less and less. One of the causes of the dysfunction within higher education is the current accreditation system, which requires students who need federal financial assistance to attend only those institutions that are approved by one of the nation’s eight regional accreditation entities.

This makes some sense for quality control. The problem is that in order for an educational program — like one of the many computer programming and coding “boot camps” springing up across Utah — to acquire this stamp of approval, it must go through a review process that is effectively controlled by schools that are already accredited.

As a result of this accreditation arrangement, where the regulated have become the regulators, innovative models of career training are often restricted from gaining access to the students who want to learn but need federal financial help to do so. That’s why I have introduced the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act, which would allow states to create their own alternative systems of accrediting higher education providers.

Under the HERO Act, Utah would be free to pursue innovative higher education models including professional training programs, apprenticeships, distance learning or even Massive Open Online Courses.

Some of these innovations would — and have — come from within our colleges and universities. Others would be created anew by education entrepreneurs. Those that served both students and employers the best would thrive and grow.

That’s my vision. But I don’t have all the answers. That’s why I am so eager to hear from the many other industry and education leaders that are coming to the Solutions Summit this Thursday.

The question that I hope will drive our discussion is: what can each of us do individually and together to help empower those who are left behind by today’s status quo?

Because figuring out the answer to that question is what really gets each of us out of bed in the morning. It’s why we do what we do. We’re driven to innovate not for our own personal satisfaction or convenience, but to make a difference in someone’s life and to help others fulfill their God-given potential.

Op-ed originally published in Deseret News