Utah’s Education Needs – Planning for the Long-Term

The Education Interim Committee of the Utah Legislature met last week focusing on a statewide plan for education. 

While transportation, water and other important community investments have a long tradition of developing plans looking decades into the future, Utah’s education system has not benefitted from a long-range plan that drives student achievement. The Interim Committee heard reports from several organizations, talking about the need for a long-term education plan.

Continued growth and development of Utah’s population, especially young minds is tightly linked to the long-term economic growth and prosperity of a state. There is a growing concern in the United States regarding the widening gap of the skills desired by businesses and those possessed by its workers. While businesses are thriving by importing talent, it is inevitably restraining the progress of the country as a whole. As Alan E. Hall, Chair, Prosperity 2020 puts it, “For individuals, for families and for our community, the path to enduring prosperity starts with education.”

Utah is the youngest and third fastest growing state in the nation. The Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel anticipates that Utah’s population will reach close to 3 million by July 2015. The number of school-age children in Utah is also increasing, though not as rapidly as it had in the first decade of the 21stcentury, and is expected to stabilize in years to come. Utah, Salt Lake, Washington, Davis, and Weber are the fastest growing counties in the state, accounting for nearly 80% of all growth. Utah’s minority population has also increased and is expected to increase further in the future, especially in Salt Lake City, impacting educational attainment.

While efforts to create a congenial business environment in Utah have met with success, the state is still lagging behind in creating a highly skilled and specialized work force. In 2013, 41 percent of high school graduates planned to seek a bachelor’s degree and 37 percent planned for a graduate or professional degree. However, only 26 percent of high school graduates between 25 and 34 years old attained a bachelor’s degree and a mere 8 percent attained a graduate or professional degree. Analysis of ACT scores in English, reading, math and science by the Office of the Utah State Auditor reveals that only 25 percent of students were “college ready” in all four subjects, thus making evident that most students are unprepared to take on the challenges confronting higher education; resulting in wasted student time and money. It is important to clearly communicate with students their preparedness for college and encourage them to enroll in rigorous courses including math and other high school graduation recommendations.

The Office of Utah State Auditor ascertains that better preparedness before starting college will help ensure that students complete their classes and graduate. They recommend identifying student behavior that enhances the chances of graduation and using the available metrics on average course-hour completion and average enrolled credit hours to guide efforts to improve graduation rates. In order to create a workforce specialized in STEM, it is important to inculcate interest in STEM courses in early school years and increase it throughout a student’s education.

“Investing in our large, young workforce to ensure it becomes one of the best-educated in the world, gives our young people opportunity and Utah’s economy an unmatched advantage in the global marketplace” said Lane Beattie, President and CEO, Salt Lake Chamber. Encouraging family responsibility to save for college can improve student financial support and ensure aid, tuition waivers and statewide scholarships to actively reach first-generation, economically disadvantaged, and returning adult students.

The business community has developed a statewide education plan to address the critical needs discussed above. It is known as “Prosperity Through Education” and can be read by clicking here.

Strengthening Utah’s education system calls for various stakeholders including schools, colleges and universities, students, parents, business community and advocacy groups, to unite their efforts in achieving this greater goal.