Guest opinion: Financial success is student success
Graduation ceremonies generally take place during May and June, when loved ones, professors and friends celebrate the accomplishments of thousands of graduates.
In 2020, the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) awarded 50,364 degrees and certificates. This showcases the value that Utahns place on higher education as a pillar for building a good life and contributing to the state’s growing economy. The number of awards also indicates student success in their academic goals.
As an open-admission institution, Utah Valley University (UVU) has the largest headcount within USHE. In 2020, UVU celebrated what was then our largest graduating class of over 6,410 graduates and awarded more degrees and certificates than any other USHE institution. In 2021, we graduated 8,729 students, another record.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students at open-admission institutions is about 29%, compared to completion rates of about 89% at selective universities. Currently, UVU has a 41.5% completion rate, and we are well on our way toward the goal of 45% completion by 2025.
Student success absolutely means timely completion of meaningful credentials. But beyond credentials, employment and the ability to land well-paying jobs after graduation are just as critical.
According to The Wall Street Journal, entry-level college graduate jobs fell by 45% during the pandemic. Since these positions help graduates launch their careers and avoid underemployment, this news is especially concerning. Graduates who are forced to take lower-paying or lower-skilled jobs are five times more likely to remain in mismatched jobs five years down the road. Ten years later, 75% of these same underemployed graduates will not have made much progress.
In recent years, UVU has improved the alignment of our programs and degrees with workforce needs in Utah and, in particular, with government-identified 4- and 5-star jobs. In 2018, the university awarded 1,152 more degrees and certificates in these high-demand occupations than in 2013 — the largest increase in USHE. This is particularly relevant for Utah, given that 84.3% of UVU graduates remain and work in the state for at least a year after graduation. Ten years out, 77.9% of UVU alumni are still living and working in Utah.
Additionally, GradReports ranked UVU as number one in Utah for the highest Salary Score for alumni earnings — meaning our alumni tend to earn higher salaries within the first year after graduation than alumni with the same major from other Utah institutions. In 2020, UVU was also ranked number one in the state (and 12th nationally) for earnings performance by Washington Monthly and ranked third in the nation for the best return on investment by Business Insider.
Utah is well-positioned to bridge the gap between college and employment. Over the past year, Salt Lake City was able to expand the size of its labor force, had the highest number of people working or looking for jobs, and the lowest average unemployment rate across the U.S. Now, Utah enjoys the top economy in the United States, and our college graduates hold the lowest record of student debt in the country.
In 2014, Professor Raj Chetty from Harvard pointed to Salt Lake City as one of the last places where living the “American Dream” is still a reality. Chetty defines the “American Dream” as the chance that a child born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution reaches the top fifth. He found that over the past 40 years, the odds of a poor kid escaping poverty were higher in Salt Lake City than in virtually any other place in the country. In his study, Chetty also claims that education helps boost outcomes and dramatically reduces the correlation between parents’ incomes and the incomes of their adult children.
I grew up in a family of seven children with a father who earned the equivalent of less than $50 a month. As president of UVU, I understand the hunger and striving of students and families. The education we offer helps our students find decent jobs and achieve a measure of financial success. Their chances for a healthy, happy, dignified and productive life increase. That is a worthy mandate for higher education — and a mission that UVU is proud to fulfill.