Keep Utah businesses competitive, pass higher ed reform

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way businesses in Utah operate across sectors. As we near the end of this calendar year, and year two of a global health crisis, 2021 was another 12-months of major transitions. Fortunately, for our state’s economy, adapting to extraordinary circumstances is something Utah business leaders have done time and time again. That is why the Salt Lake Chamber, Utah’s largest and longest-standing business association, is proud to stand alongside business leaders in calling on Congress to pass reforms in one of our state’s largest producers of skilled labor and workers – higher education. 

While Salt Lake City has been lucky to have an unemployment rate consistently lower than other parts of the state and country, our state’s great businesses still feel the effects of a nationwide labor shortage. As representatives of more than 63,000 employers, it is important for the Salt Lake Chamber to speak up when we see opportunities to strengthen policies that affect Utah businesses. Postsecondary education institutions like applied technical colleges and traditional two-year and four-year institutions are the largest producers of the next generation of workers and business leaders. And as is, the field has plenty of room for policy improvements.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that the typical four-year institution in Utah has an eight-year completion rate of only 40%. Those are worse odds than a coin toss. Low completion rates can, in part, be explained by decades of limited federal oversight. The lack of guardrails has allowed for some bad actors in the higher education system to take advantage of families’ hard-earned money, student loans, and federal taxpayer dollars with no accountability for student outcomes. 

A student’s choice to invest in a postsecondary degree is based generally on the premise that they will get a return on their investment and expand their chances of landing a competitive job. However, more than a quarter (29%) of institutions in Utah leave a majority of former students earning less money than if they had entered the workforce straight from high school. This leaves many of our state’s young people in a position where they cannot afford to pay off their debt. Utah can do better than that. Requiring common-sense reporting on graduation rates, debt repayment rates, and post-grad incomes would not only show if an institution is keeping the success of their students top of mind, but it would help Utah students and their families determine which postsecondary program makes the most sense for them. 

Ultimately, we believe that a stronger, more transparent higher education system makes for a stronger economy. Of the many lessons that the pandemic has taught business owners, one is that now is the time to get serious about working smarter. Common sense student-focused policies will not only benefit students but businesses too. 

All of us at the Salt Lake Chamber applaud Senator Romney for standing with Utah students in calling for a more transparent and accountable higher education system through S. 839 and H.R. 2030, the College Transparency Act. We encourage all of our representatives to capitalize on any and all opportunities to maintain our state’s flow of skilled workers. The opportunity costs of not acting are adding up. The bipartisan support of this legislation makes me hopeful Senate leaders – like Sen. Romney – can get this done. It’s time to act on higher education reform. 

Derek Miller is the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber