Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Graduates begin their walk into the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus in this Thursday, June 7, 2012 file photo.

In 2013, a record 8,007 students celebrated their graduation from the University of Utah. Brooks Conway, a freshman from Pleasant Grove, Utah, and the first in her family to go to college, hopes to be among another class of graduates in 2017.

Delivering an affordable, high-quality education is central to the U.’s mission. But we want to do more. We want to attract motivated, talented students regardless of economic status, and we want to help all students succeed by completing their degrees sooner. The cornerstone of our effort is increased scholarship support, targeted strategically to students with significant financial need, high-achieving students and students nearing degree completion.

An award established by the U.’s National Advisory Council is one example, and Brooks Conway is one of the first students to receive it. The scholarship provides $3,000 a year for eight semesters or until graduation, whichever comes first. Brooks’ parents didn’t go to college, and both of her siblings dropped out of high school. She says seeing the struggles they have had to face makes her want to become better for them. When she received the scholarship, she was delighted to cancel the loans she had reluctantly secured.

Financial support is vital, but so is personal support. To help students stay on course to graduate, the U. has expanded peer-to-peer mentoring programs, increased high-impact experiences like research with faculty and is using technology to reduce scheduling bottlenecks for key courses.

The U.’s six-year graduation rate is 60 percent. By eight years, 71 percent have graduated, but those two years cost more money, and more importantly, they delay full integration into the workforce.

A study from the U.S. Census Bureau reports that people with college degrees earn an estimated $1 million more over their lifetimes than peers without. More than the monetary advantages a degree confers, however, these graduates become the leaders, innovators and problem solvers who can address the future challenges facing us all. With a rapidly growing technology sector, companies that operate in the global marketplace and assets that attract creative talent worldwide, Utah’s vibrant economy demands a well-educated citizenry.

Clearly, investments in higher education are central to the long-term vitality of Utah’s knowledge economy, especially now as we strive to serve more students, to ensure quality education and to guarantee that students complete their degrees.

Financial support for higher education, together with a commitment to efficiency within the institution, maintains affordability, enables innovative programs that enhance student success and promotes recruitment and retention of world-class faculty members who are the backbone of our university.

Comment on this story

As Utah’s flagship institution, we recognize our responsibility to prepare leaders and citizens. Our focus on student success to graduation is keen, and accountability for our performance is appropriately high. We are grateful for the support of our Legislature as well as the private and corporate partners instrumental in scholarship assistance.

We ask them and all of Utah — whether advocates for the public support that maintains affordability or private investors who make the dream of higher education a reality — to join us as partners in the vision of increasing college completion for our talented youth. The stakes could not be higher for Utah’s long-term vitality or for trail-blazing students like Brooks, who knows no matter what the obstacles, college is attainable.

David W. Pershing is president of the University of Utah.