College freshman George Conde is an exceptional student. He was co-captain of his debate team at Granger High School and a Sterling Scholar in social science. His GPA: 3.99, unweighted.

The 18-year-old from West Valley City had his pick of schools. He was accepted at UCLA and the University of Washington and wait-listed at the University of California at Berkeley. But Conde picked the University of Utah.

The reason was the For Utah Scholarship.

Conde’s parents are immigrants from Peru. His mother is a factory worker who was laid off in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; his father is a painter. For Conde, the choice among schools was no choice at all. The For Utah Scholarship, which is supported by a combination of state scholarship and donor funding, targets first-generation college students with academic promise. The scholarship covers all tuition and fees for four years, provided the recipients maintain a 3.2 GPA.

“The other places had given me close to full-ride scholarships, but they weren’t the same level of support,” he says. “The U. was the best option by far.”

This fall, nearly 900 first-year students are taking classes at the university with the help of this need-based scholarship. But the For Utah Scholarship is just one of many ways the U. is ensuring student access to higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic challenges.

We have temporarily waived the online education fee and reduced other student fees by nearly one-fourth this semester. We’re also investing in technology, boosting faculty training in online education and developing additional certificates and micro-degrees for Utahns looking to upskill and reskill in a changing economic landscape.

For example, the university received more than $9.3 million in CARES Act funding to provide emergency financial grants for students. Just over 4,700 of our students will receive grants this fall ranging from $500 to $2,500, depending on the number of pandemic-impacted semesters they have attended classes since March.

Another $1 million in CARES Act funding has been invested in technology improvements — cameras, microphones, smart screens and other equipment — installed in dozens of classrooms across campus. These upgrades are enabling our faculty members to teach hundreds of courses remotely this fall.

Just one in five of our classes will be taught in person this fall, with many of those focused on first year experiences for new students and delivery of the vital “hands on” skills needed by health and other professionals. The rest will use multiple high-tech tools and applications to deliver higher education in the safety of each student’s home.

At the same time, our University Information Technology staff have installed wi-fi hotspots around campus, so students who are on campus can safely participate in educational and social activities while physically distanced.

For students whose financial circumstances limit their access to up-to-date laptops, the university’s Marriott Library staff have purchased an additional 1,000 laptops that students can check out and take home with them throughout the semester.

Finally, our Continuing and Online Education staff are working on a statewide initiative, SkillUp Utah, to help unemployed and underemployed Utahns get the training and education they need in an increasingly high-tech, global economy. Our SkillUp options include certificates in criminology, computational linguistics, social justice advocacy, gerontology and health communication, among many others.

All of these investments are part of a larger effort to make higher education more affordable, more accessible, and more welcoming. At Utah’s leading public research university, we are constantly reviewing the role we play in our community and how we reaffirm and reapply our espoused values of inclusion, equity, engagement, and community service.

At few times in American history has higher education been more important. A first-generation college student myself, I can attest to its power to transform lives. It lifts generations out of poverty, creates a more diverse and inclusive society, nurtures our democracy, fuels innovation and creates our future.

All education, regardless of scale or scope, is valuable. The University of Utah is committed to providing students with the college education they need in these challenging times.

Daniel Reed

Daniel Reed is the senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of Utah.