Andy Larsen: How do Utah, BYU and the state’s other universities compare? On tuition, academics, admissions and more.

Also, lowdown on which majors result in some of the best-paying jobs right out of college.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah campus on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. Although the U. has made a push to increase student housing construction in recent years, only 15% of its student body lives on campus, according to U.S. News and World Report.

With the calendar turning to August, it’s officially back to school time.

In that spirit, I decided to look at the data surrounding Utah’s selection of universities. Since 1983, U.S. News and World Report has compiled data from hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide, which will be our source for the vast majority of the data in this article — it’s really nice that they’ve put it all in one place.

Detractors have their qualms with the data: for one, it’s largely self-reported. In 2022, Columbia University was caught lying on its self-reported data and so was removed from the publication entirely. But most of the biggest complaints about the data come from U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of every college, which, critics say, ignore the unique strengths and weaknesses that make each school special in favor of a linear list of colleges, from most to least prestigious. One school might be a “better” school in a vacuum, but each student has different needs.

I think it’s a fair point. So instead of using any of the U.S. News and World Reports’ composite rankings, or the sections where researchers ask various collegiate experts their opinions — I’m just going to stick to the facts. What follows, then, is a number of metrics that describe each of Utah’s eight universities in terms of their student body, academics, costs, and outcomes. Let’s dig in.

School size

Our first order of business: looking at just how big these schools are in various ways.

Utah Valley University has the state’s largest student body, with over 40,000 undergraduate students. The University of Utah and Brigham Young University have nearly equal numbers of students after that for second place — but note just how many more of Utah’s students are graduate students, whereas BYU focuses much more on the undergrad set. The U’s campus is also much larger than BYU’s.

On the other end of the spectrum is teensy Westminster University — my alma mater. It just changed its name from Westminster College this summer, hoping to highlight its offerings to graduate students. Its enrollment, though, has significantly shrunk from my days there. In fall 2021, it only had 1,166 undergraduates. When I enrolled in 2008, it had 2,131 undergrad students.

While small, that does mean more personal attention in classes than the other Utah schools.

At Westminster, 83% of classes have fewer than 20 students. I remember my math classes there sometimes had just five. The school has an 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio, which really meant I got to know my professors well! Meanwhile, you’re most likely to get classes with over 50 students at the University of Utah.

That being said, it was interesting to see how BYU’s classes differed from the other seven Utah universities in one significant way: the gender of the faculty. Only 22.4% of BYU’s full-time faculty are women. That compares to 35% at Southern Utah University, 36% at UVU, 39% at the University of Utah, 40% at USU, 47% at Utah Tech, 48% at Weber State, and even 55% at Westminster.

Student body

There’s no doubt about it: BYU is the most selective school in the state.

BYU accepts 59% of applicants, and those who are accepted have an average ACT score of 29. Thanks at least in part to its ability to be selective, BYU also does a better job at getting graduations out of their enrolling freshmen than any other Utah school; 79% of BYU students went on to graduate in their six years.

The other big Utah universities tend to accept nearly everyone who applies. Given this, the University of Utah does a pretty good job of getting graduations from their students. I was surprised to see such low graduation rates at SUU, Utah Tech, UVU, and Weber State. Rates below 50% disappointed me.

Campus life is also pretty different at every school. While the school reports that 99% of BYU undergraduates are part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 66% of those students are from outside of Utah, with 17% living in on-campus housing. Westminster sees about a third of its students living on campus, as well as about a third from out of state. Meanwhile, the University of Utah and Utah State University have relatively similar numbers of students living on campus (15% and 13%, respectively) and students from outside of Utah (27% and 31%, respectively).

Only the University of Utah and Weber State have any fraternities or sororities — though under 10% of students at each college are part of one.

Utah Valley doesn’t have any on-campus housing, while Utah Tech didn’t report its on-campus percentage. At both schools, about 80%-90% of students come from Utah. Only 3% of Weber State students live on campus, and 88% are from Utah.


OK, but let’s look at how much colleges cost across the state. BYU and Westminster, as private universities, have the same tuition for in-state and out-of-state students. At the other six Utah colleges, you get a significant discount by being a Utah resident. Some of these tuition numbers are for the 2022-23 school year, others are from 2021-22.

Other than Westminster, the in-state rates for schools are largely similar across the board; you’ll spend about $6K to $10K on your yearly tuition bill. And while Westminster’s base tuition bill is absolutely gigantic compared to other Utah schools — probably the biggest reason for its enrollment decline — I’ll note that it’s actually much cheaper than most of the other Western private liberal arts colleges in its sector. I’ll also note that I’m not sure I would have written that sentence if I weren’t a Westminster alum, desperately trying to defend his school’s reputation.

BYU, though, remains just a ridiculously good deal. You understand why out-of-state LDS kids would want to choose its combination of really solid academics and relatively minuscule price point.

Room and board is relatively similar across the state, with the Salt Lake City colleges the slight outliers in costs of living. Frankly, that makes sense given the high value of Sugar House and East Bench real estate.

But I also found it interesting to see how financial aid packages for each school differed.

While Westminster and the University of Utah are the most expensive schools in the state, they also give out significantly more in need-based and non-need based scholarships and financial aid than the other six schools, though USU and UVU didn’t release their scholarship data. Students at Westminster typically had $23K in federal student loan debt, students at the U of U had about $19K, and students at BYU had about $11K in debt upon graduation. The other five school students all had debt burdens between $13K and $16K.

In general, I‘d advise everyone to aggressively explore their scholarship and financial aid options, no matter what school you go to. In particular, I beg high school juniors to take the PSAT/NMSQT — the 3-hour test is the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship Program, which allowed me to get a full tuition scholarship at hundreds of colleges across the country (including, at the time, Westminster).

Return on investment

The federal government also reports the default rate on those student loans, though the most recent data is from 2018. By doing so, we can get an idea of where the most burdensome of student loan debt is likely to occur.

Only 1.3% of BYU students defaulted in 2018, compared to 1.7% of University of Utah students. Even with the biggest loans of all the Utah schools, only 1.5% of Westminster students defaulted. Meanwhile, 3.6% of USU students, 4.1% of Weber State students, and a whopping 8.3% of Utah Tech students defaulted on their student loans. Wow. (We had no data on UVU students.)

You can also just compare salaries. The company Payscale keeps track of huge amounts of salary data from thousands of companies, including 52% of the Fortune 500. Payscale shares its data (as of 2021) with U.S. News and World Report to show how different majors at various colleges return different average starting salaries.

I’ve selected four different majors across four different industries — these four were primarily selected because a majority of Utah’s colleges had data in each of these majors.

In general, BYU’s rate of return was typically highest. Accounting students at BYU made an average of $63,300 in their first job out of college, whereas accounting students at other colleges made anywhere from $44K to $55K. Only in nursing were Westminster students able to surpass BYU students in salaries earned, around $63K. BYU’s student salaries also typically outranked those from University of Utah students in over 90% of majors, save for students in sociology and fine arts. Utah Tech and Utah Valley students, meanwhile, tended to have the lowest salaries of the bunch.

But one size does not fit all, especially when it comes to education. These stats are meant to give a wide audience a general idea of what’s going on at each school. If you’re making a collegiate choice, make sure to dig in to what’s important to you.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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