Dave R. Woolstenhulme: Don’t believe the stories about higher education not being worth it

All evidence shows that getting a degree or a certificate pays off for the student and the economy.

Increasingly around the nation, there is a growing sentiment that a college education isn’t worth one’s time or money. These opinions persist even as data show us time and time again that with increased education comes increased earnings over a person’s lifetime, and that’s just one of the many benefits a higher education can provide.

Would-be students are flooded with far-reaching stories on extreme student debt and anecdotes of students with degrees returning to low-wage jobs after graduation. Online personalities profess the ease of earning a living without a certificate or degree and that their followers “can do it too.” These tales and others are creating a compelling but false counter-narrative to the reality of higher education.

A soon-to-be-released report from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute illustrates the reality that an individual’s investment in their education can be the best investment they make in their lifetime to increase their earnings and improve their lives and the outcomes of their family for generations to come.

As the report notes, “Occupations that require some level of higher education are expected to grow faster over the next several years. Most of the occupations projected to grow the fastest require [education beyond high school], while those projected to decline fastest have minimal education requirements.”

This evidence urgently demands action on the part of the individual and education systems and industry.

Utah’s private sector is rapidly growing, and with it, the need for furthering partnerships with our education system to ensure students are connected with high-paying, in-demand occupations.

For individuals, attaining education beyond high school greatly increases the likelihood of finding employment. And businesses need access to skilled workers to keep the economy thriving. The connection between certificates and degrees to jobs will be increasingly critical in the years to come as the state’s population grows and its foothold in the U.S. economy strengthens.

One way Utah’s higher education system is furthering industry partnerships is through its involvement with the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority in developing the 600 acres of state-owned property. Coined “The Point,” this property will serve as an ecosystem that advances technological innovation, fosters a startup environment, and facilitates meaningful relationships among universities, businesses and entrepreneurs.

Utah public colleges serve students from all counties across the state, rural and urban, and award many degrees and certificates each year (more than 55,000 in the 2020-21 academic year), further preparing students for a variety of career fields.

Technical college programs ensure graduates gain in-demand skills for local jobs through direct oversight by industry leaders. Utah’s degree-granting institutions likewise supply graduates with in-demand skills for jobs across the state, though they have different missions, offer different degrees and certificates and serve different populations.

Utah graduates are not only more likely to be employed, but they are also more likely to be employed in higher-wage jobs.

From 2011-2016, cohorts at Utah public technical colleges saw average wage growth of 59.3% ($10,850) from the year prior to the year after obtaining a one-year or two-year certificate. Graduates from Utah’s public degree-granting institutions also saw increased earnings—those receiving a certificate earned approximately $6,000 more per year than someone with a high school diploma in the first year following completion of their certificate. For bachelor’s degree graduates, that impact nearly doubled to $12,000 per year. Earning increases are even greater for those with graduate-level degrees and are likely to continue growing throughout individuals’ careers.

A recent report from Pew Research, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” notes that the earnings gap between those with and without a college education is growing compared to previous generations, underscoring the need and value of education after high school, whether that be a certificate, a bachelor’s degree, or higher.

It’s time we change the narrative around higher education and get back to what higher education really is—a monumental opportunity for sustainable individual and economic growth from the Wasatch Front to far-reaching corners of our state for generations to come.

Dave R. Woolstenhulme | commissioner of higher education, Utah System of Higher Education

Dave R. Woolstenhulme, Ed.D., became commissioner of higher education on July 1, 2020, for the Utah System of Higher Education, where he provides state-level leadership and oversight for Utah’s 16 public colleges and universities.