What the heck is a polytech? Dixie State’s focus on expanding career-prep and STEM

Students in a physical therapy assistant's class examine an anatomical model, St. George, Utah, Sept. 19, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University Marketing and Communications/Alex Santiago, St. George News

ST. GEORGEWhile the proposed name of “Utah Tech University ” awaits further review, Dixie State University administrators and faculty will continue expanding the school’s polytechnic mission with or without a name change.

A graphic illustrating the location of other notable polytechnic schools and the relative lack of similar institutions in the area surrounding Dixie State, Image courtesy of the Dixie State University Marketing and Communication, St. George News

Jordon Sharp, vice president of marketing and communications, said the foundations for the polytechnic focus were laid in the 2015-20 strategic plan. The proposed name emphasizes the school’s focus and helps set Dixie State apart from other schools in the region.

“Every comprehensive university does this: the University of Utah is a comprehensive university, and they’re known for medicine,” Sharp said. “Utah State is known for agriculture and engineering. Our focus is unique in that there’s no school in the state or in surrounding states that have a polytechnic focus, and we have this great opportunity to fill that niche and meet our workforce needs.”

The four principles of a polytechnic education, as outlined on the Dixie State website, are active and applied learning, career-focused education, industry collaboration and integrated liberal arts/STEM programs. 

While the former two have been part of the school’s mission for some time, the latter two have been largely developed in recent years.The university has added 111 new education programs since fall of 2015, over 85% of which have been in STEM fields. 

Provost and Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Lacourse explained the university’s continuing polytechnic focus, St. George, Utah, Aug. 11, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Dixie State’s polytechnic focus

Michael Lacourse, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the university does not plan to add many more new programs in the immediate future, instead focusing on strengthening the existing programs and expanding enrollment.

“We’re not saying we’re going to build a university or create programs where it’s only technology training,” Lacourse said. “You’d be surprised by some of the departments that really embraced this idea. The college of arts was very interested in this because they could graduate artists here who were trained to build and operate their own businesses, for example.”

In addition to integrating STEM courses in traditional liberal arts degrees, the university has two other career-focused initiatives in the works: the launch of new degree completion programs this semester and a partnership with an unnamed online education program to offer micro-credentials.

The degree completion programs are aimed at helping non-traditional students finish a bachelor’s degree with a more flexible schedule, and the university is adding two new STEM-focused programs to its catalogue: enterprise management and technology innovation.

If a planned partnership is successful, Dixie State students will be able to earn micro credentials and certificates online, St. George, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University Marketing and Communication, St. George News

Partnering with the online education agency will allow the university to offer short, competency-based evaluations that, if completed, can help students gain recognition from potential employers and strengthen their career-readiness, Lacourse said.

The career focus is also strongly tied with plans to collaborate with more industry partners in the area. These partnerships take the form of internship programs, guest speakers, career placement post-graduation and advisory boards that help shape degree programs.

Lacourse said he views these partnerships as a key to supporting St. George and Southern Utah as a whole, fulfilling the school’s long-time designation as a regional university. 

“We want to provide talent to companies that pay a higher wage, so people can continue to live here in the community once they graduate from college,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re going to leave because they’re not going to be able to afford to buy a house here. I think the long-term view is really the impact of the university on the local economy.”

What’s in a name?

A rendering of possible apparel options showing off the proposed name replacing Dixie State University, St. George, Utah, image undated | Photo courtesy of Dixie State University, St. George News

Some critics of the proposed name change and even the polytechnic focus cite the similarity to Dixie Technical College, which already serves as a vocational education institution that supports STEM careers. 

In response, Lacourse said the shared programs and the similarities will help Dixie Tech students by creating an “on ramp” to higher education.

“The best thing that can happen to them is that we become a tech university,” Lacourse said. “If we were a liberal arts university, we would be absolutely no good to Dixie Tech because it would be a dead end. The more tech we offer, the more pathways there are for their students to get into our university.”

From a branding perspective, Sharp said he was excited about the new name because from a branding perspective it makes the university’s mission, location and accreditation all in one name. Regarding possible impacts on enrollment, he said:

We are officially a polytechnic institution, and the only one in that category for the state of Utah. These other polytechnics are now kind of sister or comparative organizations for us, and some of these institutions really limit the amount of students that can go. With Cal Poly, for instance, thousands upon thousands apply to that institution that can’t get in, so it’s exciting for us to be able to help provide for that need and to get some of that great talent to come this way.

As far as the timeline of the name change process, “Utah Tech University” was submitted to the Utah Board of Higher Education following a vote on June 29. On an undetermined date between now and November, the state board will vote on the proposed name. 

If approved, the name will then be considered by both chambers of the state legislature. A majority vote in favor of the name by both the House and Senate, along with the governor’s approval, will formalize the new name. More information about the entire process and the timeline can be found on the Dixie State website devoted to the name change.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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