Mark A. Wheatley and Josie Valdez: Improved higher education equals more opportunity

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Bethami Dobkin speaks at her inauguration as Westminster College's 19th president in front of the school's Converse Hall in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 29, 2018.

Now is the time for change. Now is the time to look at systemic and institutional racism which may exist in various institutions and take positive steps for change. Access to education, especially higher education, is one of the keys to systemically change our society and work towards a path to equity

Recent events in our nation have once again ignited conversations around equity, or the lack thereof, in our society. The list of things needed to right many of the wrongs which have become ingrained in our daily lives seems daunting. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

For each of us, the chance to pursue a higher education has proven to be life changing, offering experiences and opportunities which previously may not have been available to students. We both were fortunate enough to enroll and complete degree programs at Westminster College which have been a crucial factor in our success today.

Unfortunately, when we applied and enrolled many years ago, we didn’t have access to the tools and data needed to make the best choice regarding which institution would be best for us to attend. You could say we were lucky. But that’s not the case for the thousands of Utahns today. This transparency gap for students and families persists today.

Research has shown that the risk of falling behind or not completing their program of study increases when students lack information from institutions on how they perform against key criteria, such as graduation rates, post-graduation income levels and graduates’ ability to pay off debt.

When institutions of higher learning do not have such measures in place, the lack of accountability continues. This absence of accountability affects vulnerable student populations. For example, the typical four-year institution in Utah has a Pell Grant recipient completion rate of only 39% within six years. Pell grants are targeted resources for students from low- to moderate-income backgrounds.

Students are also leaving school with significant student debt and incomes that do not adequately help them to start paying off those loans. Currently, nearly 44% of Utah institutions leave more than half of their graduates unable to pay off accumulating loan interest within five years after they left their program of study.

While there might not a quick fix, there are reforms in motion which can impact students who need it the most.

It all begins with implementing accountability and transparency measures across our nation’s postsecondary institutions. By mandating that all universities, colleges and technical training programs report simple measurements like enrollment, financial aid, graduation rates and employment outcomes, students will be armed with the knowledge they need to select a program and educational path suits them best.

Without these safeguards in place, underperforming schools will continue to not only collect student’s money but also taxpayer dollars, with little incentive to provide quality education. An overwhelming number of Utahns agree; recent polls show that 80% of people believe there should be guardrails in place to protect students from bad actor institutions and ensure taxpayer-funded grants are not abused.

Luckily, we aren’t starting from scratch. There is currently legislation in the U.S. Senate which would enact these vital safeguards — the College Transparency Act. Sen. Mitt Romney is one of the bill’s champions. We commend Romney for supporting this legislation and urge the rest of our Utah congressional delegation to offer their support as well.

To address the equity gap in higher education, we need to ensure that vulnerable populations, including communities of color, have the most accurate data, enabling them to make the most informed decision.

While widespread, systemic change in our society will take time, we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to enact reforms that will start to chip away at the imbalances. Safeguarding our education seems like a great place to start.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Josie Valdez and Utah state Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray.

Rep. Mark A. Wheatley represents District 35 in the Utah House of Representatives.

Josie Valdez is a former vice chair of Utah State Democratic Party.

Both were named Westminster alumni of the year for 2007.