Utah’s state-run colleges will be asking the Legislature for $83 million in annual funding next year, along with several requests to help pay for large building projects. But as new buildings go up — as they are on just about all of the state’s bustling campuses — rates of graduation continue to lag significantly below the national average. While investing in campus infrastructure and new facilities is important, we would like to see a concerted effort to put more money toward programs to help the students who use those buildings get their degrees.
Right now, about 21 percent of Utah students graduate in four years, while 47 percent get a degree within six years. That compares to a national average of 33 percent for four-year completions and a rate of about 58 percent for completing a degree in six years. In overall graduation rates in public colleges, we rank 40th in the nation, and those numbers have not moved appreciably in recent years. The rate of graduation is lower among women than men, though gender and social factors aren’t the only influences. Research on a national level has tied the high cost of a college education to dropout rates.
Utah schools have programs to push students toward completion, including some limited programs that offer financial incentives, but they seem to take a back seat to requests for more buildings and the need to keep up with expanding enrollment.
As the population has grown, campuses from St. George to Logan have expanded to meet the need. In today’s economy, a college degree is becoming more essential for job placement in key sectors. It seems that working toward getting more students through the pipeline is at least as important as improvements to the pipeline itself.
The average cost of a degree or certificate for all public students in two-year and four-year colleges in Utah is about $52,000. Students often rack up high levels of debt to pay for schooling that often ends short of a degree. While the schools receive tuition money, the students in exchange are not always receiving what they are paying for, if the ultimate objective of the college experience is to obtain a degree or certificate of graduation.
The state has appropriated money in the past to increase the graduation rate specifically for student-athletes. That money has been commingled with other funds, and there is a discussion among state leadership whether it is being effectively used. In that conversation, Gov. Gary Herbert has encouraged the Legislature to consider putting funds to use in upping the graduation rates for all students, an initiative with which we agree.
Lawmakers should fairly consider the budget requests forwarded by the state Board of Regents. While so doing, they should also take into account whether enough money is being spent on programs that would make a real difference for those many students who struggle financially or otherwise to make it to graduation day.