Commentary: The reasons why higher education in Utah is worth it

Higher education in Utah is evolving to meet the needs of all learners, not just those seeking a college degree.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students begin fall semester at Utah Valley University on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022.

School is open! This time of year is energizing as we welcome thousands of new and returning students to our campuses.

Without a doubt, America’s public education system has been a pillar of the American economy and democracy. For universities, in particular, the post-World War II period was a watershed, when social and political support led to a surge of millions enrolling in universities. Since then, American universities have become a behemoth of research and innovation, and have produced the work force for the knowledge and technology economy of the 21st century.

Despite the achievements of American education, many today question the value of higher education. Parents, students and politicians alike ask, is higher education worth the time and money? Does it meet the needs of non-traditional learners and those for whom a four-year degree isn’t the answer? The answer is yes.

In Utah County, the K-16 Alliance is a critical collaboration that creates and enhances value in the education pathway from kindergarten to college. Comprised of Utah Valley University (UVU), Mountainland Technical College (MTECH) and seven of Utah’s K-12 school districts, the alliance empowers “all students to succeed in their educational journey toward post-secondary opportunities, responsible citizenship, and life-long learning.”

Through the alliance, presidents and superintendents work to provide students a seamless educational journey. K-12 provides the foundation, particularly for quantitative literacy and reading. In high school, students can access UVU college credits through concurrent enrollment, giving them a super affordable ($5 per credit hour) and convenient way to jumpstart their post-secondary education. Or they could take courses at MTECH to prepare for a technical career.

Over the past few years, UVU and MTECH have put together 15 articulations, which allow MTECH graduates to receive academic credit at UVU. This includes associate and bachelor’s degrees in entrepreneurship, nursing, information technology and more. These partnerships among educational institutions save students time and money as they pursue their education, and ensure a better ROI (return on investment) from taxpayer dollars.

Higher education itself is evolving to meet the needs of all learners, not just bachelor’s degree seekers. Technical certificates, associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees all provide benefits for the individual and society. In addition, online programs are growing for those who want to complete their education but have family or professional commitments that prevent them from doing so in a traditional, face-to-face environment. From 2017-2022, UVU increased its fully online programs from 7 to 44, with more online programs in the pipeline.

Utah’s economy has benefitted greatly from its investments in education. Enrollment in post-secondary education institutions in the state has never been higher. Unlike the general decline in enrollment across the country, Utah continues to see enrollment growth and is a national leader in higher education attainment. It is also the #1 economy in the country, with over 17% of state GDP supported from our vibrant and growing tech sector.

A degree in higher education remains the most proven tool to advance personal finance and health. Graduates with a bachelor’s degree have an 84% higher median wage and make $1.2 million in additional lifetime earnings than people with just a high school degree. A bachelor’s degree provides career flexibility and opportunities for advancement.

Studies have shown that adults with post-secondary education live healthier and longer lives than their less educated peers. Financial benefits, improved health, and career flexibility enhance resilience for life. An economic analysis of over 30 million students found that public universities offer the greatest upward economic mobility.

Higher education also benefits communities. College graduates are 32% more likely to vote, 42% more likely to volunteer, pay more in tax revenue and give more charitable donations. Graduates are less likely to be impoverished, unemployed, incarcerated or reliant on social safety-net programs than their less educated peers. Additionally, education is key to breaking the poverty cycle and providing benefits to posterity.

We encourage Utah’s leaders and all Utahns to strengthen their support for our education system. Our economic and social well-being depends on our understanding of the benefits and necessity of education, and our continued investment in a well-educated society.

Astrid S. Tuminez, president, Utah Valley University; Clay Christensen, president, Mountainland Technical College; Rick Nielsen, Nebo School District superintendent; Shane Farnsworth, superintendent, Alpine School District; Paul Sweat, superintendent, Wasatch School District; Jill Gildea, superintendent, Park City School District; Jerre Holmes, superintendent, North Summit School District; Greg Maughan, superintendent, South Summit School District; Jennilyn Derbidge, principal, Utah County Academy of Sciences.