Peter Reichard: Utah should be broadening educational horizons

Readiness for post-secondary education begins at home.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Graduates at the University of Utah's commencement ceremony, in Salt Lake City on Thursday May 2, 2019.

Few dividing lines in our nation are as bright as the line between those who have some form of post-secondary degree or certification and those who do not. A shortfall in post-secondary educational attainment diminishes both social capital and economic prospects. And the consequences echo through generations, as the children of those with low educational attainment are more likely to follow suit.

Some of the steps to expanding post-secondary attainment involve long-term, bottom-up changes. But we can take some steps in the medium term – or even right now. The Utah Foundation’s new report, “Broadening Horizons: Clearing an Early Path to Post-Secondary Success,” lays out steps toward increasing the connection to high-quality certificates and degrees.

Broadening educational horizons begins at home. Setting high expectations in the household and a student’s wider community promotes educational attainment. Parents who expect their children to attend college will tend to address child-rearing accordingly. Children who grow up expecting to attend college will tend to take school more seriously.

Early basic readiness is important for students. Students who are not reading on level by the end of third grade are far less likely than peers to pursue post-secondary education. Some of that readiness must begin at home by surrounding children with books and reading to them regularly. That implies taking time away from devices, because there’s only so much time in the day.

Unfortunately, Utah has been moving dramatically in the wrong direction, as revealed by a February report from the Utah Foundation, “The Comforts of Home: Family Life in Utah.” Prior to the pandemic, Utah languished in the bottom 10 states in reading to young children, following a rapid decline in reading. While the pandemic year 2020 reversed this trend dramatically – sending Utah just above the national average – it remains to be seen whether the reversal will hold. Meanwhile, recreational electronic device use among Utah youth has been rising rapidly since 2011. In this arena, the pandemic appears to have made matters even worse.

Schools may be able to bridge expectation and readiness gaps by avoiding gimmicks and staying focused on traditional educational goals. This means presenting students with challenging curricula, creating a college prep environment for all students, promoting the development of critical thinking skills and emphasizing student engagement. “Teaching to the test,” by contrast, appears to be a losing strategy.

Beyond the daily classwork, intentional exposure to post-secondary education and career paths should begin in elementary school through mentorship, field trips, career days and other activities.

Among the most immediate steps we can take to promote attainment is to ensure that every student fills out a federal student aid eligibility application before high school graduation. Students who fill out the federal application are far more likely to continue their education past high school than those who do not.

Startlingly, Utah currently ranks 50th in the United States for its federal eligibility application completion rates. This suggests the need for programming to strongly incentivize high school students to apply as a matter of course.

Another area of weakness in Utah is its school counselor numbers. Studies suggest a tight tie between a higher proportion of school counselors and greater post-secondary attainment. During the 2019-20 school year, Utah’s ratio of students to school counselors was 547:1 – well above the national average of 424:1, and more than twice the recommended ratio of 250:1.

With youth and inexperience, students know little about how college works. This is particularly true of those who would be the first in their families to attend a post-secondary institution. Providing students with good information on post-secondary options can significantly increase their likelihood of enrollment and success in post-secondary institutions.

Finally, savings correlates with a much higher likelihood of graduating from college. Lower-income students even with very little savings are four times more likely to graduate from college than their peers with no savings.

The economic divide between those who have some form of post-secondary degree or certification and those who do not is stark, and the social implications are far-reaching. If we instill in children an understanding that education doesn’t end at 12th grade, we will broaden their educational horizons beyond graduation. In turn, they will broaden their economic prospects, build social capital and help Utah to flourish.

Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Contact him at peter@utahfoundation.org. Find the research on post-secondary educational attainment at utahfoundation.org.