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Economic data confirm higher education confers substantial individual and societal benefits

Salt Lake City—Utahns who secure higher education degrees earn more income, secure greater employment opportunities, achieve greater upward mobility, participate less in public assistance programs, and garner a variety of other positive benefits. These and other benefits are documented in a new policy brief released by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

“The evidence makes clear the promise of higher education to lift people and contribute to a better world,” said University of Utah President Taylor Randall. “At the University of Utah, we focus on student achievement knowing that our efforts will help increase our students’ lifetime earnings, enhance their economic mobility, and help them live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.”

The policy brief includes compelling data on the individual, societal, and economic impact of Utah’s institutions of higher learning. Key findings include the following:

INDIVIDUAL BENEFITS

Individuals with higher educational attainment enjoy greater incomes, economic stability, and life quality.

  • Increased earnings –Median earnings rise with years of education attained while poverty rates and unemployment rates decline.
  • Reduced disparities and higher economic mobility – Students with a family member with a postgraduate degree are far more likely to complete postsecondary education. The share of individuals with family income higher than their parents is greater among those with a college degree.
  • Better health outcomes –Utahns with more years of education report higher rates of excellent, very good, or good health and higher rates of health care coverage.
  • Improved outlook  Individuals with a postgraduate degree or certificate are happier, healthier, and more confident in their future.

SOCIETAL BENEFITS

Society derives valuable benefits from an educated citizenry.

  • More civic engagement – Individuals with more education have higher volunteer rates and voter participation.
  • Decreased reliance on public assistance –As individuals receive more education, they rely less on public assistance. Several studies show postsecondary degree attainment significantly reduces the use of public assistance among Utahns, including one study that found nearly half of graduates with bachelor’s degrees that previously used SNAP never participated in SNAP again.
  • Return on investment –It is estimated that every $1 the state invests in public higher education returns $3 in tax revenues from increased wages of Utah college and university graduates.
  • Increased tax revenue –Workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher pay 1.8 to 3.4 times more in taxes than high school graduates.

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

Higher education benefits Utah’s economy through job and business creation, workforce development, and innovation.

  • Major employer  Utah’s public higher education system supported an estimated 130,000 jobs and $8.3 billion in labor income in 2023, making it one of the largest employers in the state.
  • Substantial economic contribution  Public higher education contributes $11.3 billion to Utah’s economy. Because of their research mission, Utah’s R1 research universities (U of U and USU) generate 82.6% of this economic impact.
  • Workforce development  Approximately 203,000 students are enrolled in a USHE degree-granting institution as of Fall 2023, gaining knowledge and skills to prepare them to contribute to Utah’s workforce. These graduates will generate increased earnings, economic activity, and tax revenue.
  • Skilled workforce  Utah’s employers consistently report skilled labor as one of their greatest needs. An estimated 71% of USHE graduates received high-yield degrees in 2022, filling critical Utah workforce needs.
  • Research and innovation  Utah’s research universities bring in outside research funding, fueling innovation and leading to the creation of new companies, high-impact innovation, and field-changing discoveries.
  • Education multiplier  Education services in Utah have a relatively high economic multiplier of 2.1. That means every direct contribution related to education services multiplies within the economy over two times.

The Gardner Institute hosted a Newsmaker Breakfast on February 14 with four university presidents to discuss the findings.

The full policy brief is now available online. It is also attached.