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Skip college? Even as more Americans consider it, that’s not the Utah way

Students mill about near the University of Utah's Block U logo in LGBTQ pride colors in front of the student union on campus, March 29, 2023.
Andrew Christiansen
Students mill about near the University of Utah's Block U logo in LGBTQ pride colors in front of the student union on campus, March 29, 2023.

What first looked like a COVID-19 pandemic-driven blip in college enrollment has turned into a national worry. From 2019 to 2022, undergraduate college enrollment by high school graduates dropped 8% across the United States according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

There were declines even after the return of in-person classes.

Many youths have been dissuaded by high tuition and the possibility of student loan debt, turning to hourly jobs or careers that don’t require a degree — except in Utah.

The Beehive State saw a best in the nation 3.6% increase in undergraduate enrollments during that time. Arizona and South Carolina were the only other states with increases.

Utah stands apart as the youngest state, in addition to being family-oriented and in the midst of a college-age population wave. The state’s universities are also bolstered by primarily in-state enrollment.

For the 2022-2023 school year, all Utah public universities saw increased enrollment. Snow College and Salt Lake Community College were the only degree-granting colleges in the state that saw decreases.

The college-age wave

A big factor in Utah’s steady college enrollment could simply be the number of 18-24 year-olds, said Mallory Bateman, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. This college-age population is currently experiencing rapid growth in the state, adding between 10,000 and 20,000 residents each year.

In the mid-2000s, Bateman said Utah saw a significant increase in births at a faster rate than the rest of the country, leading up to the state’s birth peak in 2008.

“We were just on a slightly different trajectory 18 years ago than the nation,” Bateman said.

That means we’re now approaching what demographers call an “age wave,” with a big chunk of the state’s population turning college-age this decade. According to a 2022 Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute study Bateman co-authored, Utah’s college-age population is projected to increase by 52% between 2020 and 2060. That lags behind the projected 66% increase in the total state population.

“Projections indicate that the college-age population will decline during the 2030s and early 2040s before transitioning back to a more moderated growth pattern,” the study noted.

In the study, five of the six counties projected to experience the most significant college-age population increases are also home to higher education institutions. Rapidly growing Utah County is expected to see the largest gains.

David Woolstenhulme, the commissioner of higher education for the Utah System of Higher Education, is proud Utah is one of the few states still increasing college enrollment — but it’s still important to try and capture as many potential students as possible.

“I don't want to rest on our laurels to say that we're there because we also know that we have about 40% of our kids that are not going on to any type of higher education three years out from high school,” Woolstenhulme said. “And that's problematic to me that we're missing out on that many students.”

Woolstenhulme is also worried about the national prediction that college students will fall by more than 15% starting in 2025, also known as the enrollment cliff. He said Utah needs to take advantage of its head start and prepare by making applying for college easier and “closing the opportunity gap.”

“We know that we have a group of underrepresented students that haven't had some of the same opportunities as other students that are not in the underrepresented groups,” he said. “We've got some time to really try to focus on how we … tap into that 40% by helping them understand what opportunities are out there.”

In this Nov. 14, 2019, photo, students walk on the campus of Utah Valley University, in Orem, Utah.
Rick Bowmer
In this Nov. 14, 2019, photo, students walk on the campus of Utah Valley University, in Orem, Utah.

Staying close to home

Utah’s public universities rely heavily on Utahns choosing to stay here for college.

In-state enrollment is over 70% for most Utah universities — including at Weber State University, Utah Tech University, Utah Valley University and Utah State University. In all of the Utah System of Higher Education, only about 18% are out-of-state students.

UVU, in Orem, experienced its biggest enrollment numbers ever this school year, surpassing 43,000 students. Michelle Kearns, vice president of student affairs at the university, said that while they continue to “recruit and bring students in from other states and countries, most of our growth has come from enrollment of Utah residents.”

The University of Utah in Salt Lake City thinks differently about out-of-state enrollment. About 29% of the student body aren’t residents of Utah. Back in 2018, it was 19% of the student body. That’s because the U has put more focus into recruiting students from out of the state, according to Steve Robinson, the university’s senior associate vice president for enrollment management.

Digital outreach and growing the recruitment staff have made it easier to cover more places geographically, Robinson explained. This is part of President Taylor Randall’s vision to become a “top 10 public university with equivalent societal impact.” This includes a goal of growing the student body to 40,000 students in the next decade. The U currently has 34,705 students.

“When I got here in 2019, we had one regionally based recruiter,” Robinson said. “Now we have five in addition to a team of 18 based here in Salt Lake, so the size of the team is more than doubled now.”

The U’s biggest out-of-state market is California by proximity and sheer amount of high school graduates, but Robinson said they’ve also seen their numbers grow, even if by small amounts, in places they wouldn’t expect including Texas, Illinois and Georgia.

For the third year in a row, the U also welcomed its biggest freshman class ever, as well as the most diverse and academically prepared.

Further south in St. George, Utah Tech University also had its biggest-ever student body this school year. Darlene Dilley, associate provost for enrollment management, said affordability is a central factor in both Utah Tech and Utah universities at large.

“As an open access institution, we believe maintaining affordability is key to continuing to increase college-going rates,” Dilley said.

For average in-state tuition and fees for public four-year universities in the 2022-23 school year, Utah ranked fifth lowest in the country. For out-of-state tuition and fees, Utah ranked 16th lowest.

Students on the plaza in front of the J. Willard Marriott Library on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, March 29, 2023.
Andrew Christiansen
Students on the plaza in front of the J. Willard Marriott Library on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, March 29, 2023.

Uniquely Utah

One way Utah stands apart from the rest of the country is the educational expectations families have for their children, said Shawn Teigen, president of The Utah Foundation.

One big motivating factor is if the parents themselves received a bachelor’s degree.

“If your parents have a bachelor's degree, you're more likely to do well in school,” Teigen said. “You're more likely to graduate from school and you're more likely to go on to enroll in college.” Of residents age 25 and older, 36.8% have a bachelor's degree or higher, which is more than most of its six neighbors, except for Colorado where 44.4% do.

Ari Bruening, CEO of the nonprofit Envision Utah, said the surveys they have conducted suggest a culture that places a high priority on higher education.

“We recently surveyed Utahns and asked if they thought post-secondary education was worth the cost and 74% said it was often or always worth the cost,” Bruening said.

Woolstenhulme said the fact that Utah is avoiding a national trend of decreased college enrollment, at least for now, gives plenty of reason to celebrate. But he can’t help but feel that the state needs to put a huge focus on tapping into the around 30% of Utahns that don’t receive any education past high school.

“There's still plenty of fish in the sea that we need to educate,” Woolstenhulme said. “We should [still] be worried, but I'm less worried because the students are there. We just got to make sure that we're giving those students the opportunities”

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