Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
Unsurprisingly, the cost of postsecondary education is a major concern for Utah students. Last May, Envision Utah surveyed more than 7,600 high school students in the state about their perceptions of postsecondary barriers. Cost topped the list, followed closely by wanting better information about applying to college.
The survey also found that about 80% of Utah students plan to complete postsecondary education, but only 67% enroll within five years of high school graduation.
"We're really looking at four areas in terms of making sure that kids are kind of on the right track to really know what they want to be doing and know how to get there after high school," said Shawn Teigen, vice president and director of research for the Utah Foundation.
Those four areas are:
According to the Utah Foundation report released Wednesday, postsecondary expectations within the family are fundamental to student success.
"Where are you in terms of your expectations for what you're going to do after school?" Teigen asked. "Are you mostly like, 'I expect to be done going to school and I want to play video games,' or is it something else?"
Readiness, Teigen said, is really just ensuring that Utah students have a pathway to achieving their goals after high school, whatever those goals may be.
"It's not necessarily being, you know, college-ready," Teigen said. "Some people aren't going to go to college and some people don't want to. They want to get a general contractor's license and that's kind of their goal and maybe they don't need to go to college for that."
The report noted that having the presence of role models, mentors, counselors, teachers and more is key to helping broaden students' horizons in terms of postsecondary education and career path options.
"Knowledge about what is out there and what the opportunities are and how to get there ... is a really big one that counselors and others can really help with," Teigen said.
- Financial obstacles
As Envision Utah's survey noted, cost is seen as the most significant barrier to postsecondary education.
"The idea of knowing how much it's going to cost and knowing what kind of financial supports there are," Teigen said. "From the beginning, maybe getting a little savings put aside because that really helps, even if it's a small amount, it helps maybe psychologically more than anything else in terms of making your way to the postsecondary thing that you're looking for."
Within these four areas, which Teigen said are thought of as the "framework" for the report, there are issues within the framework, such as the school counselor-to-student ratio and financial barriers for low-income families.
Lack of counselors
Teigen said that the ratio of the number of students to school counselors was a major takeaway from the report and studies suggest a significant tie between higher numbers of school counselors and greater postsecondary attainment.
"If you have more time to spend with your students, you can help with some of those things related to expectations and readiness and knowledge and financial challenges, and if you can do that, that's a huge benefit within the school system that can really help bring people along."
During the 2019-20 school year, Utah's ratio of students to school counselors was 547 to 1 — well above the national average of 424 to 1 as well as the recommended ratio, set by the American Association of Counselors, of 250 to 1.
"We're kind of behind the eight ball," Teigen said. "We're more than double where we should be, but I think we're improving and we're on the right track."
The reason he believes this is due to HB381, which was passed during the 2021 legislative session and is a grant program that provides funds for people to become counselors.
Additionally, counselors are key to helping students and families fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Utah is currently 50th in the nation for FAFSA completion percentage, Teigen said.
"We have a lot of room to make up, we're leaving so much money on the table," Teigen said. "We're paying taxes. That money is going to the federal government and it's not coming back in terms of helping with loans and grants for kids here because we're not filling out the FAFSAs at the rate that we should be."
While cost is seen as a barrier by most Utah high schoolers, the barrier can seem insurmountable for low-income families. One (important) avenue to combat this, Teigen said, is through child development accounts.
According to the report, child development accounts enroll participants at birth by setting up savings accounts with seed funds, usually between $25 and $100 provided by foundations, donors, corporations along with city or state governments.
The Utah Legislature pursued a program aimed at securing funding for these accounts through HB198, which was a bill intended to break cycles of intergenerational poverty in the state, which passed but didn't receive funding.
"The Legislature, I think, is on the right path. However, they didn't fund HB198," Teigen said. "At the end of the day, when it comes to finding the money for it, they couldn't find the money."
Teigen said he believes the Legislature is taking steps in the right direction to understand the need for more counselors and the need to increase funding for child development accounts, but they aren't quite getting there, particularly in the realm of child development accounts.
"Ultimately, that's also going to just take a lot more money at the end of the day," Teigen said. "We're going to need more money."
A closer look at the four pieces of framework for the report along with additional programs and support systems can be found in the full report.
Additionally, the Utah Foundation will be putting out an upcoming report that will focus on alternatives to four-year degree programs, including means of connecting K-12 students with opportunities that may be highly beneficial to them.