The world looks strikingly different now — everywhere from thousands of miles away, down to our local neighborhoods. Among those affected are our college campuses, as the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and challenged higher education institutions and their campus communities to a significant degree.

Beginning in March 2020, Utah’s public colleges and universities worked around the clock to transition to remote learning, implement safe social distancing in places on campus that needed to remain open and set up telecommuting to ensure the safety of their faculty, staff, students and neighbors.

One of Utah’s greatest strengths during this pandemic has been its outstanding, accessible system of higher education. The headlines may be filled with controversies about whether schools will reopen, but our message is clear — Utah’s public technical colleges, community colleges and universities are not only accepting students online and in-person but are committed to being part of the larger solution to the pandemic crisis itself.

Utah’s public colleges and universities contribute to the vibrancy and stability of Utah communities in ways big and small. Their impact is vast, and their missions set the foundation for individual and community prosperity.

Utah’s public higher education institutions employ 23,000 Utahns full-time and spend more than $5 billion annually to serve their local communities, incubate new businesses, conduct cutting-edge research and elevate the quality of life for their graduates and the state as a whole. Moreover, these institutions educate 230,000 students yearly — most of whom remain in the state, making colleges and their workforce-ready graduates a driving force of the state’s economy.

Utah is on its way to economic recovery, but it isn’t there yet. It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting effect. Knowing this makes it impossible to return to what was, and makes it essential that our recovery results in something better. Higher education is the key to restoring Utah’s economy to its former standing — and then some.

College graduates have consistently seen lower unemployment rates than those with a high school diploma, their job security is greater and they typically experience a greater quality of life overall. Of the graduates from Utah’s public colleges and universities in 2016, 24,472 graduates collectively earned an estimated $470 million more in increased wages in their first year of employment after graduation.

New studies reveal the same rings true for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers found, as part of the COVID Inequality Project, that college graduates in the US were eight percentage points less likely to lose their job as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to workers without a college degree.

“Higher education can be the bridge between our past and our future. I believe now is the time to expand your skill sets and fortunately, in our state, we have a premier higher education system and allied technical training programs,” said Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. “While we cannot control the virus, I hope we can all be proactive and use this time to think in terms of personal and business growth. Higher education will facilitate both priorities.”

Despite the positive statistics surrounding college graduates, many Utahns have found themselves out of a job or underemployed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In our new consolidated higher education system, made up of all public community colleges, technical colleges and universities in the state of Utah, learning new skills to re-enter the workforce has never been more straightforward.

New online options are making it possible for Utahns to pursue retraining at home, even from rural communities across the state. Southern Utah University, alone, has more than doubled its online offerings over the last two years. Whether students choose to pursue credentials at a technical college, a degree-granting institution, or a combination of the two, we are working to ensure credits are transferable and that students may build upon previously earned credentials if they choose to further their education.

Though other institutions are slowing and stalling during this pandemic, Utah’s colleges and universities remain committed to being part of the solution by readying Utahns for the workforce and providing them the opportunity to reach their dreams.

Harris H. Simmons

Aaron V. Osmond

Nina Barnes

Harris H. Simmons is chair, and Aaron V. Osmond and Nina Barnes are vice chairs, of the Utah Board of Higher Education.