Gov. Gary Herbert gave state-supported colleges and universities a homework assignment last week. By this fall, the state's higher education system is to provide a plan to meet the growing needs for students with associate and bachelor's degrees to address the work force demands of Utah employers in the 21st century.

While higher education officials are at it, they need to examine two associated trends ?— marked declines in the percentage of Utahns ages 18-24 who attend college, and Utah's lower than average percentage of women who are enrolled in college.

The state system of higher education is already delving into the latter. This phenomenon deserves careful consideration, given that 49 percent of students in Utah colleges and universities are female, compared to 57 percent nationwide. The University of Utah and Utah Valley University have the lowest percentages of female students among state-supported universities at 44 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

What do these trends say? Do Utahns not recognize the value of a college education? Did the recent economic boom — and readily available, well-paying jobs — entice high school graduates into the work force instead of attending college? Have students simply been priced out of attending college? Or have bottlenecks in the system made it increasingly difficult for students to earn required college credits? Are young women deferring or forsaking college once they start families?

There are no simple answers, but Utah must reverse these trends for the sake of its economy and for the well-being of individuals, families and societal institutions. A highly educated work force is directly tied to a vibrant economy. Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser says that for every 10 percent increase in college degrees among adults in a metropolitan area, wages for workers with fixed education levels increase by 8 percent.

The value of a college education transcends personal income attainment. College-educated people tend to smoke less, exercise more, vote and get involved in their communities. College-educated women have healthier babies, and their children are more likely to attend college themselves.

For the sake of the state's economy, and for the personal development of Utahns themselves, college needs to be a higher priority. The state must reverse the trend of fewer Utahns attending college and take steps to ensure that the state's institutions of higher learning have adequate support so students can be successful in their pursuit of a college education.