SALT LAKE CITY — Student success is important to many parents, teachers and district officials, and it turns out it should be the focus for Utah businesses as well.
Increasing Utah's high school graduation rate by 5 percentage points — to 90 percent — would lead to more education and higher income for those graduates, which means greater spending in terms of taxes, homebuying and other purchases, according to research by the Alliance for Excellent Education.
It would also mean new jobs in the state, the national policy organization found.
"Every student has the potential to impact a community if he or she receives a high-quality education," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, which is set to release economic impact reports for 50 states and 140 metropolitan areas.
"Increasing the high school graduation by just a few percentage points would provide economic mobility to thousands of Utah children and significantly increase the financial well-being of everyday, hardworking Utahns," Wise said.
The data complies with the mission of the local Our Schools Now ballot initiative, which is calling for a small (0.45 percent) tax increase to help more Utah students succeed. The group touts "greater funding, greater outcomes," which looks to be true when the alliance study is considered.
Research shows that 60 percent of the additional high school graduates would enroll in higher education, leading to a roughly $23.2 million increase in annual income for these graduates within 10 years.
Additional income, according to the study, would mean "more money flowing into state and local economies" every year, including $1.4 million in state and local taxes, $18.1 million in miscellaneous spending, and millions more in home and car sales, as U.S. Census Bureau data points to increased homeownership for Utahns who attend at least some college.
The majority of jobs — close to 99 percent — in Utah and throughout the nation have consistently gone to applicants with a post-high school education, according to Our Schools Now. It is estimated that 66 percent of jobs throughout the state will require a higher education degree or certificate by 2020.
John McKernon, senior adviser at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, said America can still be prosperous while other countries offer lower labor costs, but "we can't compete with countries that offer better education."
"The only way to keep up with the standard of living increases and offer competitive salaries is to have people qualified to do the jobs," said McKernon, who was in Utah on Wednesday. "And that starts with K-12 education."
Investing in education, Wise said, ends up being "the best economic development package for the states."
"The reality is that a high school diploma is no longer the finish line for students. It is the starting point," he said. "A high school diploma is critical for success."
That success is not only experienced by the graduate, Wise said, as the local economy is dependent upon the money those graduates make and/or spend in the future, having a cumulative effect years out.
Increasing the number of graduates in the state can also save money for Utah because graduates, the local initiative boasts, are less likely to be unemployed or involved in crime, and they're more likely to have better health and a longer life span.
The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates health care cost savings over the lifetime of new graduates, including $16.4 million in savings to the state, as they most likely would have access to insurance through an employer-provided plan.
"As today's findings demonstrate, a greater commitment to public education results in remarkable benefits to Utah's economy," said Bob Marquardt, with Our Schools Now's executive committee. "Investing in teachers and students not only allows for kids to succeed, but also strengthens our economy and grows our communities."
Marquardt said funding needs to be directed to reinforce early childhood learning, stabilizing the teaching force, increasing student proficiencies in reading and math, and provide teacher support where needed. He said past increases in funding have been "swallowed up" by the increases in the cost of living.
"We need to have an educated work force," said Lane Beattie, president and CEO at the Salt Lake Chamber.
Beattie said businesses support it and know it will save them from "future heartaches and hardships."
Alliance for Excellent Education estimates economic growth of $42.3 million and at least 100 new jobs in Utah if an extra 2,260 students had graduated with the class of 2015, the year used to compile the reports.
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization promoting high school transformation studied the economic impacts of increasing graduation rates across the country and is attempting to release the findings ahead of state legislative sessions.
"This information is vital to state and local policymakers," Wise said.
The reality is that a high school diploma is no longer the finish line for students. It is the starting point. A high school diploma is critical for success.
–John McKernon, senior adviser at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
State reports on what the alliance is calling the "Graduation Effect" can be found online at impact.all4ed.com.
In 2015, Utah graduated 36,860 high school students, a rate of 84.8 percent. The Utah State Board of Education reported 38,236 high school graduates in 2016, a rate of 85 percent.
Nationally, 83.5 percent of students graduate high school, according to Wise.
"A high school diploma is a crucial step for any Utah student who wants to succeed in the global marketplace," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said when the rate was released last year. "We celebrate those students who have taken that first step to make themselves ready for college and careers."
Dickson said at the time that the state would continue to study data "to see that all students take that necessary step of graduating from high school prepared for college or careers."
"This is not an unreal goal," Beattie said, adding that Utah schools are already changing the future.
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