On the value of a college degree

This op-ed was originally published on Sept. 15, 2019, in the Deseret News.

Today the value of a bachelor’s degree is openly debated nationally given strong employment, the rising cost of a college education and other workforce training options. Yet, the research is clear: A four-year degree offers exceptional value, both personally and to society at large.

As the state’s flagship institution, the University of Utah is committed to ensuring that those who seek a higher education complete their degrees in a timely manner and enjoy the benefits that achievement confers. Ensuring students reach the finish line is the focus of a summit the U is hosting later this month, a discussion founded on the value inherent in the timely completion of a college degree.

A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis shows the median earnings of individuals with bachelor’s degrees are 50% higher than the earnings of individuals who start college but do not finish. And, the benefits to individuals do not stop there. Numerous studies report college graduates, on average, are more likely to have employer-provided retirement and health insurance plans, are less likely to be unemployed, and are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors than individuals with only some college education. Society also benefits when individuals earn bachelor’s degrees as they pay relatively more in taxes, are less likely to be reliant on government aid, and are more likely to be civically engaged.

Despite the many individual and societal benefits, four out of every 10 students who started college in 2012 had not completed a degree by 2018. The reasons for this are varied. Certainly, increases in tuition and fees—up 7% nationally over the past five years—have played a role, but there are other contributing factors. For example, students who begin their college careers at a two-year school often face barriers in transferring to four-year institutions that may discourage them from continuing their educations. In addition, first-generation students may be less likely to feel a sense of belonging on a college campus, which can derail their academic aspirations.

The University of Utah has undertaken numerous initiatives over the past few years aimed at easing the transition to college life and navigating the many challenges that are experienced by both entering freshmen and transfer students. For instance, the university’s Student Success Advocates help students explore their interests, connect to campus resources, and build a sense of community. Academic advisors are also using real-time data to track student progress and to provide support as needed.

As another example, the U’s College of Social and Behavioral Science has worked with Salt Lake Community College to establish articulation agreements that ensure major courses taken at the community college count toward our majors, facilitating the transfer process and shortening time to degree completion. In August, our two institutions jointly hosted a transfer summit focused on identifying best practices to further reduce obstacles SLCC students may face when they are ready to transfer to the U. Initiatives like these have increased the university’s completion rate from 55% to 70% in just eight years—making us one of two public institutions in the country to achieve gains of this magnitude in six-year graduation rates.

But, there is clearly more we can—and must—do to help students achieve their dreams of attaining a bachelor’s degree. With that goal in mind, the University of Utah has partnered with Lumina Foundation to bring together university presidents and senior administrators of public research universities that have significantly increased graduation rates in recent years to engage in a national dialogue about practices that enhance degree completion. During the summit, set for Sept. 30-Oct. 1, leaders will share information about high-impact, evidence-based strategies for helping students complete the degrees they seek.

We know that providing access without ensuring a path to completion is a hollow promise of a better future. We aim to deliver on that promise for all students.