Somehow, it always seems to surprise conservative Utah political leaders when the costs of education are added up. The term "free public education" doesn't mean the government's job in providing all Americans with the basic knowledge they need to succeed in society can be done without a substantial investment of tax revenue.
Still, Gov. Gary Herbert appeared astonished by a Utah Office of Higher Education report last week that stated what should be obvious: State funding for higher education will have to increase significantly to meet Herbert's goal of 66 percent of all Utahns with postsecondary education by 2020.
The report estimated that goal will require an increase of 11 percent a year in public investment significantly more than the 2 percent average annual increase the Utah Legislature has given the state's colleges and universities over the past decade.
Herbert's response demonstrates the prevalent but unrealistic idea that good public education somehow just happens, without ongoing infusions of more money, no matter how large enrollment increases continue to be.
"It's not going to be easy. It's going to be a challenge for us," Herbert told the regents. "Let's see if we can't have success whatever our limitations are with our budget."
That statement implies that the governor expects Utah universities and colleges to raise completion rates "whatever limitations are with our budget." That's expecting a lot.
Furthermore, training children for college degrees or vocational certificates has to begin long before they reach college age. Utah's public schools are struggling to maintain a high school graduation rate of about 76 percent, and only about a third of those who graduate are prepared to succeed in higher-education courses.
Realistically, the problem begins in preschool. Too many Utah children enter first grade without the skills they need for academic success. An investment in early-childhood education quality preschool for at-risk kids and all-day kindergarten for all children has been proven to help improve success leading to a high school diploma. That's the first step to increasing the number of Utahns with college degrees.
There is little chance Herbert's goal of 66 percent of all Utahns with degrees or certificates can be met in just seven years, unless he is willing to lobby legislators for more money for higher education.
The chances of reaching and maintaining that goal are even more slim without a long-term investment in preschool and kindergarten.