Why a college education is not a waste of time

University of Utah sophomores Asher Stewart, Neon Huff and Annie de Bry study in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 13, 2024.
University of Utah sophomores Asher Stewart, Neon Huff and Annie de Bry study in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 13, 2024.

A college education remains one of the single most important indicators of a happy, healthy and economically stable society. Yet despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a national narrative exists that higher education does not provide a sufficient return on investment. As leaders of two Utah universities, we share in the responsibility to communicate to prospective students, families, elected leaders and Utah’s communities that, overall, higher education yields significant benefits for individuals and society.

Recently, we had the opportunity to speak about the value of higher education to a packed room at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. We were joined by presidents Brad Mortensen of Weber State University and Darin Brush of Davis Technical College. Collectively, we all agree that Utah’s colleges and universities play a pivotal role in the state’s future. We are confident in our capacity to educate Utah’s existing and future workforce, make economic contributions to the communities we serve and foster innovation that enhances the lives of everyday Utah residents.

We also understand that higher education is not a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s the strength of Utah’s System of Higher Education, or USHE — our different institutions provide education, technical skills and training for a tremendous variety of career paths. During the Gardner Policy Institute panel, Davis Tech’s President Brush noted the importance of teaching skills that are in demand and are emerging as well as those that are community centered.

This idea made us think about the questions students and families ask before pursuing higher education. As experts in higher education, we can help support Utahns about choosing the right option and address some of today’s common concerns.

Will I belong?

Belonging manifests itself in several ways. It extends beyond mere acceptance; it encompasses a sense of connection and appreciation for individual contributions. At our institutions, we emphasize that college transcends mere education; it serves as a platform to discover one’s community, passions and objectives. We, at the U and USU, are dedicated to cultivating an atmosphere akin to the magic found in college towns, where every student can forge a sense of belonging, be it through involvement in clubs, sports, arts, social gatherings or faith-related activities. Both of our universities offer cultural hubs and immersive opportunities aimed at fostering unity and conveying the message that every individual is valued and welcomed.

Will I succeed?

Achieving academic success goes beyond mere intellect; it requires resilience, time management and the capacity to seek out and utilize resources. Our universities offer a comprehensive range of support services, encompassing tutoring, counseling and mentorship activities. The University of Utah recently introduced the innovative Navigate U platform, designed to tackle obstacles hindering students from achieving degree goals. Meanwhile, USU’s Aggies First Scholars program specifically supports first-generation students, offering them mentorship, an empathetic community of peers and avenues for leadership development. Both institutions have an unwavering commitment to ensuring that no student slips through the cracks on their journey toward a rewarding career and promising future.

Will I be able to afford it?

Families today grapple with concerns regarding the expense associated with pursuing higher education and the initial sticker shock of tuition costs, which may dissuade them. Nevertheless, our universities are steadfast in their dedication to ensuring education remains within reach and financially feasible. We provide extensive financial aid packages, comprising scholarships, grants and work-study options. Both the U and USU extend scholarships to eligible Pell Grant recipients, addressing their remaining tuition and fees. Recognizing that investing in higher education is investing in the future of individuals, families and Utah at large, we strive to facilitate this investment as a straightforward choice, rather than a daunting burden.

As Utah undergoes dynamic growth and evolution, we firmly believe that higher education plays a pivotal role in equipping Utahns to navigate these changes and flourish. Our intention is to perpetuate conversation surrounding the transformative impact of a college education. We eagerly anticipate spreading this message statewide, engaging with community members, fellow USHE leaders and stakeholders to foster renewed trust in higher education. Ultimately, our institutions are dedicated to serving the state’s best interests, enriching Utah’s economy and society, and empowering Utahns to pursue lives filled with happiness, health and prosperity.

Taylor Randall is president of the University of Utah. Betsy Cantwell is president of Utah State University.