Main Navigation

The impacts of higher education

Taylor Randall and other Utah university and college presidents share how their schools benefit students and Utah as a whole, from enriching lives to economic vitality.

Higher education in Utah not only yields rich rewards for the thousands of students attending the state’s colleges and universities, but it also drives numerous side benefits to the state, particularly around economic development, according to a panel of Utah university presidents.

For every dollar Utah invests in higher ed, three are returned in the form of increased tax revenue, according to a policy brief prepared by the Gardner Institute. Utahns with greater education attainment enjoy increased earnings, and better health outcomes, and report higher levels of happiness than those who did not attend or complete college. College graduates also exhibit higher levels of civic engagement, are more likely to have health insurance and are less likely to need public assistance, according to the brief.

Gardner Policy Institute Director Natalie Gochnour, far left, moderates a panel discussion with four Utah college and university presidents, exploring the value of higher education, on Feb. 14, 2024. Above, U President Taylor Randall, left, and USU President Elizabeth Cantwell. Photo credit: Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute

“It has this remarkable transformational power in individuals. It frankly starts with ideas. It starts with ideas in the minds and the hands of the next generation. You give them ideas and you give them confidence, and suddenly the trade-offs in society aren’t seen as trade-offs,” said University of Utah President Taylor Randall, speaking on Feb. 14, at a “newsmaker breakfast” hosted by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City.

“The evidence makes clear the promise of higher education to lift people and contribute to a better world,” Randall said. “At the University of Utah, we focus on student achievement knowing that our efforts will help increase our students’ lifetime earnings, enhance their economic mobility and help them live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives.”

Utah’s seven public institutions directly employ 70,000 and contribute $5.3 billion to the state’s GDP. Their total contribution is about twice those figures, according to the Gardner Institute.

Natalie Gochnour, the director of the Gardner Institute, moderated the forum convened to emphasize the broad benefits arising from the work of Utah colleges and universities at a time when higher education faces criticism, both nationally and in Utah, for harboring anti-conservative bias and inadequately preparing students for success.

Randall was joined by Elizabeth Cantwell, Utah State University’s new president; Weber State University President Brad Mortensen; and Darin Brush, president of Davis Technical College.

Brad Mortensen, president of Weber State University. Photo credit: Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute

Land grant universities, like USU, are grounded in a mission tied to rural areas, said Cantwell, who arrived on the Logan campus last summer from Arizona State University.

“Along with the data that says universities are powerful economic drivers, we have the trust in every community. And that piece of being a member of the community—by being a major employer, by not only educating and delivering workforce for local companies but also genuinely creating individuals who have ideas that start-up or create new endeavors—is so much more important in a rural area than it is in an urban area. It is absolutely critical that we keep doing that,” Cantwell said.

Weber State started 135 years ago as a stake academy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it would have faded away long ago were it not for the citizens of Ogden who fought to save the school when the state tried to return it to the church, according to Mortensen.

“The folks of Ogden led a statewide ballot initiative to overturn the will of the legislature and the governor on a bill that had already passed, funding the institution with an increase in the beer tax, and we’re still here,” said Mortensen, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership and policy from the U. “We know that Ogden rose and fought to keep an institution in their community. So at Weber, we have this deep commitment to realize we need to reciprocate that back to Ogden.”

As an example, Mortensen cited the university’s Center for Community Engaged Learning where students work with nonprofits and other community groups to apply what they’re learning in the classroom in a real-world setting.

Darin Brush, president of Davis Technical College. Photo credit: Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Utah’s network of eight technical colleges provides vocational training to 35,000 students a year through open-enrollment-based certificate programs.

“We exist in this really fascinating nexus between workforce development and economic development. That is each one of our missions,” said Brush. “We only teach skills that are in demand, skills that are emerging. We only teach regionally important programs. So all of our portfolios look a little bit different because we’re very community-centered. We’re very focused on that business and industry.”

Nearly all the sponsored research in the state, most of it federally funded, occurs at the U and USU, which combined for more than $1.2 billion in research expenditures last year. This spending results in massive multipliers rippling through Utah’s economy, according to Randall and Cantwell. It’s not just employment, but also the cultivation of a “innovation ecosystem.”

“Those dollars become many, many, many more dollars in the state,” Cantwell said.

The presidents emphasized the cost of a Utah education is a bargain. Borrowing rates are low and tuition at most Utah colleges has not outpaced inflation over the past 10 years.

“That has not been the national narrative, but it’s a fact,” Mortensen said.

Annual in-state U tuition is about $10,000, but the actual cost is only about half that, according to Randall. Only about half of U undergraduates take out loans and for those that do, the debt load is less than $20,000. The six-year graduation rate has hovered around 65-67%

“The [Utah’s] system as a whole has to be probably the best deal and the best value in higher education in the country,” Randall said. “The multiplier in terms of salaries is enormous. Our starting salaries are close to $65,000, which fits you with the 67th percentile of individual income in the United States. So it pays for it relatively quickly.”

But there is more work to be done to better align the U with the interests of its students and the state, according to Randall. He emphasized a need to instill students with an entrepreneurial spirit.

“They suddenly realize that the problems they see can be overcome by their own ingenuity,” Randall said. “It makes them hopeful for the future. I think fundamentally that is where we’ve got to start focusing. We don’t just teach, we have to inspire. And that is the fundamental change I believe our institution has to go through over the next years to reinforce that confidence.”