Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
UVSC graduate Genevieve Simpson's daughter Sariah 4, takes a real liking to her mom's tassel. Simpson holds her daughter and talks with family as they wait the the UVSC Commencement Exercises to begin. April 28, 2006 Photo by Stuart Johnson

The recently published results of a robust Dan Jones & Associates poll demonstrate in very clear terms the importance of college education in Utah.

They also accentuate a staggering statistic — one-quarter of Utah's adult population have attended college without graduating. Almost two-thirds of those who prematurely halted their studies did so after attending four or more semesters, and almost one-fifth had attended eight or more semesters. The most commonly cited reason for early withdrawal is getting married or having children, a statistic disproportionally associated with females.

The state has an aggressive but appropriate goal that by 2020 two-thirds of Utah adults will receive a post-secondary degree or certificate. This objective is driven by the overwhelming evidence that completion of postsecondary education has a significantly positive impact on income, career stability, job advancement, personal happiness, parenting, community engagement and numerous other desired societal and individual outcomes.

Given this information, it seems both intuitive and critical that Utah should focus efforts toward helping those who have started college to subsequently complete a degree or certificate.

While different reasons exist for students failure to complete college, many of these reasons can be addressed. Part of the concern lies with the lack of adequate career, financial and academic counseling — an area hit hard as education budgets shrink.

Exceptional guidance counseling helps students realize the value of completing a degree, shows students the most efficient path to graduation and assists students in overcoming their personal obstacles to completion. In the case of students who halt their studies due to marriage and/or children, effective advising can also lead students to courses and programs that will help them continue toward completion while managing their unique circumstances.

Students have demonstrated in a number of ways the importance of good counseling. For example, enrollments at for-profit colleges have accelerated in spite of high tuition costs and other challenges, thanks in large part to the investment these schools make in areas of advising and counseling. And recently, I led a research engagement in which we talked with thousands of college students throughout the country. Overwhelmingly, the greatest demand for improvement among students, especially non-traditional and minority students, was for quality academic, financial and career counseling.

Our colleges and our high schools need more highly-trained counselors and advisors. But given budget and workload constraints, aspects of advising that can be accomplished effectively online must continue to be migrated to that setting, as a complement to the services provided by advisors.

One such automated solution would involve building a statewide system that tracks the courses students have completed, shows them the certificates or degrees to which their credits will apply and then lays out the most expedient pathways to degree completion. Such a system would show students how their credits could work toward a more quickly obtainable degree or certificate, toward a different field of study or even at another school within the state.

Equipping students with this type of real-time knowledge will provide immediate, meaningful alternatives to dropping out altogether. This could be particularly beneficial for the many students whose lives are changed by marriage, children or other responsibilities and who therefore may need to consider different paths to completion.

These efforts, combined with the current increase in online and evening courses, will continue to accelerate the number of students who are able to complete their degree or certificate.

In business settings, we routinely focus on the "low hanging fruit" in order to make immediate progress on goals. One of the most effective methods to increase college graduation in Utah will be to start with students who have taken or are currently taking college classes but will not finish, ultimately resulting in more Utahns realizing the myriad benefits of college completion.

Randy Shumway is chief executive officer of the Cicero Group.