My view: Utah's perspective on college costs

By David L. Buhler

Published: Thursday, Oct. 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Two recent articles in the Deseret News and a companion Sunday editorial on the cost of college and student debt (Oct. 14-15) used a number of national statistics and anecdotes to paint a discouraging portrait of American higher education. With the exception of reporting in part two on Utah's superb Utah Educational Savings Plan, readers were left wondering if it is as bad here in Utah as the story represented.

Speaking for Utah's public colleges and universities, I am happy to report that we live in a state where the higher education aspirations of students can be realized either debt free or with debt more manageable than typically incurred in other states. Consider this:

According to the College Board, Utah is the third most affordable state in the nation for college education.

Utah student loan debt is the lowest in the nation with just over half (52 percent) borrowing at all; of those, the average debt upon graduation is $15,509, nothing even close to the $85,000 example used in the articles. In fact, the national average is $26,682 — still a far cry from what was reported.

The annual cost of college at Utah's public colleges and universities (including tuition and fees) is about one-third less than the national figures reported — $10,181 compared to the $15,918 (for a Utah resident undergraduate). The average cost for a Utah resident at a public two-year college is $5,923 compared to $8,085.

Utah's public colleges and universities are ranked nationally as the most cost-efficient in the U.S. In 2012 each Utah public college student is being educated for $600 less than students just four years ago, showing our efforts to remain a good value for our state at a time of state budget difficulties and increased enrollments — much of this achieved through a remarkable set of innovations, including aggressive expansion of online learning, across our USHE institutions.

Of course the $6,000 to $10,000 a year it costs today is a lot of money. Fortunately, many students and families are assisted by financial aid. In 2011, 64,387 students at Utah's public colleges and universities received Pell Grants, averaging $3,600.

But rather than relying on the hope of financial aid, scholarships or lower tuition, a growing number of Utahns are taking action themselves by saving for college. Another article provided a good overview of the Utah Educational Savings Plan, a tax deferred 529 plan (see UESP.org for more information) which is an excellent way to save. Saving is the best way to assure college is an affordable for our children and grandchildren.

Evidence is clear about the many benefits of college including finding a good-paying job. According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, all of the 20 highest-paying occupations in Utah require post-secondary education. Furthermore, it is estimated that 66 percent of Utah jobs by 2018 will require it.

According to the U.S. Census, annual median income for a graduate with a bachelor's degree is $14,900 more than a high school graduate. College graduates are also much less likely to be unemployed. The Utah unemployment rate for someone with a high school diploma in 2011 was 14.1 percent compared to 4.3 percent for Utahns with a bachelor's degree or higher.

And yet, the benefits of a college education are more than just monetary. College graduates are, on the whole, more healthy, have healthier kids, are more civically active, volunteer more and are less likely to need state assistance or be incarcerated.

To continue providing accessible, quality higher educational opportunities for Utah students, I, along with the presidents of the state colleges and universities, are strongly committed to continuing to lead the nation in terms of educational innovation and efficiency. That said, as we face state demographic growth, an increasingly competitive world, will require increased public and legislative support to provide what is needed.

David L. Buhler is the Utah commissioner of higher education.

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