The recent financial crisis has policy wonks arguing about solutions to the challenges our country faces. However, very few informed individuals disagree with one long-term solution to our economic situation: investing in an educated and skilled workforce.

Investing in a better educated and more skilled workforce is the most viable long-term strategy for helping us emerge from this crisis in a stronger and more competitive global economic position than we entered it.

There are several critical, integrated investments Utah needs to make to improve student learning.

First, we must define and agree on the ultimate desired outputs of Utah's school system. Too often, we are implementing solutions in search of problems. An accurate assessment of the challenges we face and concurrence on our ultimate, quantified goals will empower policymakers, teachers, parents and students alike.

Second, we must set milestones to achieve at key intervals throughout the student lifecycle. If we continue to determine the success of our school system solely by the standards of high school completion and college readiness, we will continue to be coroners ?— diagnosing problems after it is too late. Setting "gatekeeper" indicators, such as first grade readiness, reading proficiency at the third grade and completion of beginning algebra and biology by the eighth grade, will enable us to address problems in Utah's education system before it is too late.

Additionally, we must match high school graduation requirements with the entrance requirements of colleges. Through milestones we can ensure better prepared high school entrants, paving the way for stronger high school graduates.

Currently, only 54 percent of Utah high school graduates attend college, and a full 75 percent of those students require remediation during their first year in college. Most problematic is that only 27 percent of our young people ages 25–34 years old have obtained their Bachelor's degree, leaving Utah ranked 31st in the country for the number of college graduates in this age group. This figure is most alarming when one considers that our 45–64 year-old age group ranks 12th in the U.S. for the percentage of college graduates.

At a time when higher education is most needed for professional success, Utah is facing declining numbers of graduates. We must graduate more students and better prepared students. We can do both by strengthening our high school graduation requirements. This will not pigeonhole all students into going to college. On the contrary, it will increase graduates' choices by equipping them with the credentials to pursue higher education if they choose to do so.

Finally, we must better integrate the high school and college experience. Integrated career pathways should be developed to take a student from the 11th grade through the first two years of college in three years. The process will not only offer direction and goals for our students, but will provide them with the certification and specialized training to obtain the high-demand, high-value careers that will propel our state's economy.

With an associate's degree in hand, our graduates will be empowered with true options — a specialized, high-paying job, the ability to continue university education or both. Additionally, Utah institutions of higher education should collect information about student achievement during their first two semesters and share that data with the high schools from which students originate, thus sharing with their education partners the areas in which student knowledge needs to improve.

Deriving key indicators of future success and creating clear interim milestones throughout the K-8 experience will better prepare students for high school. Strengthening graduation requirements for students will equip more students to attend college at higher rates of preparedness. And better integrating higher education and higher school will create a more seamless and effective transition.

The societal and economic benefits for Utah of such strategic thinking and investment are substantial.

Randy Shumway is chief executive officer of the Cicero Group.