Utah universities fail to follow law meant to help students pick a school and a major

(Screenshot) The front page of utahfutures.com website.

The following story was written by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune, The UVU Review and The Signpost.

You can always tell when a new school year has started at Utah’s public universities and colleges by the apprehensive, sometimes confused looks on the faces of students wandering around campus.

While freshmen are bombarded with information about registration, student success and involvement in campus life, they often are left with a big unanswered question: “What’s the value of a degree, and is it really worth the time and money invested?"

“As a freshman student, you come out of high school and you have all these different options. You honestly don’t know what to do,” says Leticia Rodriguez, a health administration student at Weber State University. “So if they provided a page where students could find this information that could give them an idea, I think that would be very helpful.”

Two years ago, the Utah Legislature passed a bill to create just such a helpful website. Originally called StepUpUtah.com, it was intended to allow students to explore the value of their degree, using job market predictions, total cost of attendance and financial aid to make informed decisions about their pick of a school and a major.

What’s not helpful for Utah students is the fact that most higher education institutions in the state don’t promote the website and some have a link buried on their own page.

This seems to be an obvious flouting of the law, which states that the schools must have “clear and conspicuous” links to the site.

HB100, sponsored by Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, and then-Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, passed without a single dissenting vote in the House and Senate in 2017.

StepUpUtah.com as of this summer was moved to UtahFutures.org. The site used to have a function where a student could, with a few easy clicks, find out how much money graduates from different schools with different degrees were making five years after they graduated, based on data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services. Students could easily comparison shop schools and see which ones offered the best bang for their educational bucks.

The new site, UtahFutures.org, also promises it “very soon” will offer that tool, called “Launch My Career.”

Another feature still under construction tracks such things as total costs of programs — loans, books, housing — based on real local data and not national averages.

But while the Utah System of Higher Education created the website, colleges and universities haven’t been fond of sharing the information. The bill language said it was to go into effect in July 2018, but as of press time it had not been linked prominently on most campus websites as the law requires.

Many campuses offer resources meant to offer guidance to students — though they still don’t link prominently to UtahFutures.

Utah Valley University

According to advisers at Utah Valley University, this type of information is available to incoming students if they ask for it.

“The incoming freshmen are already being given so much information about student success, registering for classes and getting involved on campus that I don’t want to pile on information about graduation and career choices at this stage,” says Kaye Fugal, an adviser.

UVU does provide links in its course catalogue to the Department of Workforce Services that contains some, but not all of the required disclosure information. Links to UtahFutures can be found through a site search but these links are in obscure places.

One link to UtahFutures is nestled in the Utah Women & Leadership Project on a landing page that can only be found by using UVU’s site search and not through any links on the UWLP page.

Weber State University

Weber State also provides information on UtahFutures, but it is contained within training and career preparedness PDFs. This information can only be found through a site search on WSU’s website.

Leslie Park, director of Weber State’s Student Success Center, says the school has built a system called the Major & Career Navigation Center that uses quizzes to help students pick a major and links to national resources like the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

“All of those different resources that StepUpUtah offers, for the most part we offer too,” Park says of Weber’s system. “We don’t link back to StepUpUtah, but I think that is something we could definitely consider.”

Park also acknowledged that even the system Weber State has is kind of a “hidden gem” on the campus website. “Unless you are really proactive or seek out and ask a lot of questions you may not find it.”

In addition, most of the data the page offers is still not customized to the Utah market. Instead of telling students how much graduates from Weber State earn, the information is only applied on a national scale.

However, the school is continuing to look at new ways it can improve the program.

“It’s not perfect,” Park says. “We know that there are going to be iterations of it. We will get better every year, but we are really excited to at least now have something to meet the needs of our students in, hopefully, a more meaningful way.”

Other institutions such as the University of Utah and Southern Utah University referenced pages on their academic websites with some of the information required by the bill — but not all of it and not the UtahFutures site.

Dixie State University

When asked why Dixie State did not link prominently to the site, spokesperson Stacy Schmidt said the information was in several spots. Still, she looked into the matter and had the campus web director place a prominent link on the campus pathfinder tool to UtahFutures.

“Pathfinder is the entry point for students to explore DSU’s various program options,” Schmidt said in an email. “Now, students will see this option immediately at pathfinder.dixie.edu, making this information much more conspicuous for our students, their parents and other stakeholders.”

Utah System of Higher Ed

Beyond individual schools’ failing to prominently feature the Legislature-mandated student tool, the Utah System of Higher Education also appears to be out of compliance with the law.

The original StepUpUtah site it built contained the required information, but the new site still lacks many of those features, promising they’ll be available in the future.

Spokeswoman Melanie Heath said USHE is committed to the 2017 legislation, but is focusing first on getting funding to place college access advisers in high school statewide to help walk students through the process of using the UtahFutures site.

“We don’t just want to put it out there and hope students will find it on their own,” Heath says. Having advisers to help them navigate the site, she added, will produce better results.

Coleman, the state legislator who pushed the law, is disappointed that the schools responsible for promoting it haven’t followed through.

“It’s unfortunate to me to think that one of our state agencies would not comply with the law, especially when it is so important for students and families to make one of the biggest decisions they will ever make,” Coleman said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, left, talks with her then-intern Kate Wheeler in the Utah House of Representatives on March 2, 2018.

The Utah Investigative Journalism Project is a nonprofit dedicated to public service journalism and education.