A new report on how well prepared Utah high school students are for college compared to students in other states is hard to view with our customary sense of optimism.

Not that the Utah numbers are horrible, but they can be seen as a harbinger of worse things to come if the trend isn't reversed.

The report details the relative success of students on ACT examinations, and they offer a measurement of how many kids are ready for college by percentage. In Utah, the number is 23 percent, which ranks 34th in the nation. By contrast, the top-ranking state – Massachusetts – boasts a number twice as high.

The general reaction among our education establishment is that the numbers could be worse. In truth, they have to get much better in coming years if Utah hopes to maintain its edge in luring businesses in search of an educated workforce.

In fairness, the statistics are skewed by the fact that Utah is among only 10 states that push nearly all students to take the test. In other states, only students who are likely to attend college take the ACT, and so it stands to reason they will score higher than those for whom college is not necessarily a priority. In that smaller category, Utah ranks smack in the middle.

The glass half-full contingent would point out that such a performance isn't bad considering Utah, by virtue of its demographics, spends less money per pupil than nearly every other state. They could argue the ACT results and other rankings consistently speak to a degree of over-achievement.

In a quantitative sense, the point is well taken. But qualitatively, those who are concerned with how education levels translate to economic growth are less sanguine about the college preparedness quotient.

The business-backed organization called Prosperity 2020, which calls for an emphasis on growing an educated workforce, says a much larger percentage of school kids needs to be ready and able to attain a college education in order to ensure future job growth.

Utah has been regarded as a place where the pool of prospective employees is generally well-educated, but there is evidence that viewpoint is losing traction. Earlier this year, an annual survey by the CNBC network of the most business-friendly states issued rankings based on 10 criteria, including quality of life, cost of doing business, regulatory environment, general economic health and the quality of education.

Overall, Utah ranked second in the country, despite ranking 45th in the category of education. Had the ranking on the education component only been near the median, Utah would have clearly scored at the top of the heap as the most attractive state.

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The importance of the education category will only increase in coming years as the global marketplace becomes more competitive. Increasingly, a bachelor's degree is becoming the baseline where qualifications start for job seekers in critical technology and information services industries. High-end professional employment now frequently requires post-graduate study.

The Legislature and state education leaders are likely to continue efforts to assemble some kind of core curriculum for public schools, and many in the education world believe the proper objective of such an initiative is to increase preparedness for post high school education.

When it comes to the state's future economic prosperity, the successful accomplishment of such a mission would go far to elevate our level of optimism.