Is higher education still worth the cost? Here’s what the data in Utah shows.

A policy brief from analysts at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found economic and social benefits for people and the economy.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Taylor Randall speaks during the Newsmaker Breakfast: The Value of Higher Education at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. During the breakfast, Randall and other heads of Utah's higher education institutions talked about a report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, which found that Utahns with college degrees earn more money and consider themselves healthier and happier than those who don't.

The benefits of higher education in Utah are “relatively overwhelming,” the president of the state’s flagship university said Wednesday.

“What I’ve always loved about higher education is it has this remarkable transformational power in individuals,” University of Utah President Taylor Randall said during an event at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Randall and presidents of three other public, postsecondary institutions spoke about the value of a degree or certificate for people and the broader community following a quick presentation of the Gardner Institute’s new policy brief.

That report found that economic data “make clear that Utahns who secure higher education degrees earn more income, secure greater employment opportunities, achieve greater upward mobility, participate less in public assistance programs, and garner a variety of other positive individual and societal benefits.”

Analysts looked at the effects the Utah System of Higher Education — a group that includes eight public colleges and universities and eight technical colleges — has on the state.

Here are three ways analysts argue higher education benefits individuals and the broader community.

More education = more earnings

Overall, Utahns earn a median of $49,534 a year. That number increases as people get a bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree, the report said.

Utahns with graduate or professional degrees make the most, with median earnings of $87,987. That’s nearly double the median earnings of residents with an associate degree, 121% more than Utahns with a high school diploma and 154% more than people who didn’t complete high school or pass an equivalency exam.

About 71% of 2022 graduates from the 16 colleges and universities in Utah’s higher education system got a degree leading to high-wage, high-demand jobs.

Having at least a bachelor’s degree also correlates with lower rates of poverty.

Utahns with higher education degrees are 40% less likely to live below the federal Poverty Level. That’s currently $14,580 for an individual and $30,000 for a family of four.

About 7% of Utahns overall live in poverty. For Utahns with a bachelor’s degree, that figure drops to 4%, while 15.2% of Utahns who have not earned a high school diploma or a GED are below the poverty level.

Higher levels of education also translate into lower unemployment rates, which range from 1.7% for people with at least a four-year degree to 2.5% for people with some college education or a two-year degree to 4.2% for Utahns with less than a high school diploma.

As people get more education, they’re also improving their family’s future opportunities, research shows.

Utah’s universities are enrolling more people who “want or need more education” at some point past their youth, said Elizabeth Cantwell, president of Utah State University.

“That is the future of work, it’s the future for all of the people who are just getting a bachelor’s degree today,” Cantwell said. “You want to enhance your ability to serve your family and your community.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State University President Elizabeth Cantwell speaks during the Newsmaker Breakfast: The Value of Higher Education at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

Utahns with degrees are happier, healthier

Utahns with a postgraduate degree or certificate are happier, healthier, and more confident in their future, according to the report.

They’re 20% more likely to report they’re happy and 25% more likely to say they’re confident in future career success than Utahns without a college degree or certificate.

Technical education, in particular, can help people transform their view of themselves, said Darin Brush, who heads Davis Technical College, because of the competency-based model.

“When you know how to do something well, your confidence builds,” he said.

Last year, around 300 graduates from the technical college went on to enroll at Weber State University, Brush said, and he thinks they “wouldn’t have had the confidence without the certificate” they got through Davis Tech.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davis Technical College President Darin Brush speaks with attendees during the Newsmaker Breakfast: The Value of Higher Education at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

While college graduates are 24% more likely to consider themselves healthy than people with a high school diploma or less, Utahns with a high school diploma aren’t much less likely to say they have excellent, very good or good general health.

The biggest difference in reported health comes from Utahns who didn’t finish high school or pass a high school equivalency exam.

About 63% of them reported at least good health, while people with a high school degree or more reported excellent, very good or good health at least 84.6% of the time.

Society benefits through more engagement, higher taxes, economic effects of institutions

Utahns with at least a two-year degree or certificate are more likely to give back in various ways, the analysts found.

About 46% of residents with higher education degrees volunteer in the community, compared to 25% of those without. That means Utahns who graduated with an associate degree or certificate or who went on to complete bachelor’s, graduate and professional degrees are 45.7% more likely to volunteer than those who didn’t.

The universities themselves also seek to give back, said Brad Mortensen, president of Weber State University.

“We have a lot of programs that reach out and serve the community,” Mortensen said, pointing specifically to the regional university’s Center for Community Engaged Learning and the Ogden Civic Action Network.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State University President Brad Mortensen listens to an attendee after the Newsmaker Breakfast: The Value of Higher Education at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

College graduates are also 32.1% more likely to vote in state elections.

A little more than ¾ of Utahns with some sort of higher education degree or certificate vote in state elections, compared to about half of those residents without.

Nationally, as people complete more education, they’re also less likely to use public assistance, and their tax payments go up incrementally.

Society also benefits from higher education, the analysts write, through job creation and economic contributions.

Utah’s public higher education system was one of the largest employers in the state in 2023 with about 130,000 jobs. Those schools also generate an estimated $11.3 billion in gross domestic product for the state’s economy, most of which comes through the two research universities — University of Utah and Utah State University.

Researchers found that for every dollar budgeted on education services — including higher education — the state’s economy gets back 2.1 times what it spends.

Utah public education an ‘amazing deal’

Utah’s public higher education system is an “amazing, amazing deal,” Cantwell said.

Mortensen pointed out that with a few exceptions, tuition at Utah’s public postsecondary institutions has increased less than inflation in the past 10 years.

And the state subsidizes 90% of technical education, Brush said, making it affordable and accessible for even working adults.

Utah has addressed the cost issue of a postsecondary education, Randall said, and doesn’t hand out “degrees to nowhere.”

The state’s higher education system does need to work on “inspiring young people and giving them hope for the future,” he said, but the national narrative about the cost of higher education shouldn’t scare people away from public universities and colleges in Utah.

“Come on in, let’s figure out the finances with you because it’ll pay off,” Randall said.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.