Deseret News
FILE: University of Utah graduates take a selfie during commencement at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 5, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — Spring semester and commencement ceremonies have wrapped up at almost all of Utah's public higher education institutions, sending a new wave of graduates into the workforce.

Most of them will stay in Utah if previous trends hold true, and that bodes well for the state's already flourishing economy. It also shows progress toward the state's ambitious plan of having 66 percent of its working population with a postsecondary education by 2020.

"The trends are all in the right direction for our overall goal," said David Buhler, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education. "We're happy with the successes of this spring, but we're never satisfied. We're always going to push to help more students to be successful."

Final graduation numbers and completion rates for the 2015-16 school year will be available near the end of the year. But early estimates show 40,237 students graduated this year from Utah's eight public colleges and universities, Westminster College and BYU.

• Utah State University awarded diplomas to 6,039 students.

• Weber State University graduated 5,406 students.

• Westminster graduated 859 students.

• Salt Lake Community College had 4,125 students complete their programs.

• The University of Utah awarded degrees to 8,291 students.

• Utah Valley University produced 5,176 graduates.

• BYU had 5,929 graduates.

• Snow College had 1,031 graduates.

• Southern Utah University graduated 1,712 students.

• Dixie State University had 1,669 graduates.

The Utah College of Applied Technology doesn't have estimates for this year's graduates yet because some of its eight campuses are still holding graduations. Last year, the technical college awarded credentials to 6,636 students, according to a college spokeswoman.

Official counts for last year show a total of 39,415 graduates, not including those at UCAT, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.

"I think it's very encouraging that we're graduating that many students," said former Utah commissioner of higher education Richard Kendell, who is now co-chairman of Education First and policy adviser to Prosperity 2020. "They're off to a good start, and I'm delighted to see the growth."

Making progress

The Utah economy created some 44,400 net new jobs over the past year, many of them in industries such as technology, health care, financial services and business, according to Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the U.

Utah is currently tied with Oregon for having the second-fastest growing economy in the country as measured by job growth. Idaho is No. 1.

"Because the Utah economy competes with countries around the world, it's critical that we offer value. If we don't, many jobs will flow elsewhere," Gochnour said in an email. "An educated workforce is an absolute imperative for a vibrant economy in a globally competitive world."

For many members of the class of 2016, the current job market is much different from the one that existed when they enrolled. Student head counts in Utah surged in 2008 and 2009 during the Great Recession, followed by a slight dip in enrollment when the age requirement was lowered for missionary service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Many of this year's graduates were among those who enrolled when job prospects were at their lowest five or six years ago, according to Buhler.

"There's such demand for a skilled workforce in every realm, this is probably one of the best years for college graduates, as far as the job market" is concerned, he said. "It's a good year to graduate."

How this year's graduates fit into keeping Utah on track toward having two-thirds of its working population with a degree or certificate won't be fully known until official records are calculated.

But a report published last month by the higher education-focused Lumina Foundation showed 47.9 percent of Utahns in 2014 had a college degree or certificate. That's above the national average that year of 45.3 percent, putting Utah 13 places behind the top state, Massachusetts, which had an attainment rate of 55.4 percent.

"We're on the cusp of doing a lot of great things," Kendell said. "We would like to think that Utah will be a center of education, and that people and businesses will say, 'Utah is the place to be. That's where the talent is.'"

Moreover, most institutions are seeing an increase in the portion of students taking a full course load of 15 credits, which has been linked with higher rates of success for students, Buhler said. That and other factors, he said, will hopefully keep the number of graduates growing each year, despite effects of the two-year slump in enrollment from the missionary age change in 2013.

"If we can increase the percentage of those who graduate, which is what we're working very hard to do, then we'll still see the total number increase," he said.

Stay or go?

Utah's expanding job market is a key incentive for many students in deciding to stay in the state after graduation, according to Buhler.

In a recent report to the Utah Legislature, higher education leaders found at least 74 percent of graduates during the 2013-14 school year stayed and worked in Utah the following year, according to statewide workforce data.

But the actual percentage is much higher, Buhler said, because available workforce data doesn't account for graduates who become self-employed, work for the federal government, go on to graduate school or are still living in Utah but not working.

"We know there's some undercount," he said. "I estimate that it's at least 80, maybe 85 or even 90 percent that actually stay."

Salt Lake Community College had the highest percentage of students who stay after graduation, at 82 percent, according to the report. USU had the lowest rate at 62 percent, which higher education leaders attribute in part to the campus being close to the border with other states.

Construction trades, education, and personal and culinary services had the highest percentage of graduates choosing to stay, each more than 80 percent. Other fields demanding more qualified candidates, such as computer and information sciences, business management, and health care professions, also had a high portion of graduates retained in Utah.

Physical sciences, transportation and materials moving, and leisure and recreational activities had the lowest average portions of retained residents, at 60 percent, 40 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

"There's no question that we're in a national, if not international, market, and we do lose some very good people to companies that are more robust and have more opportunity," Kendell said.

Even with competitive job prospects elsewhere, there's still reason for many to return to the state later on in their career, regardless of their occupation, he said.

"The big one is family. I think that's a big draw," Kendell said. "The other one is Utah has a great quality of life. … They want to come back. They miss the mountains."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen