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High school dropouts impact Utah's economy

SALT LAKE CITY — A sure-fire way to spur economic growth in Salt Lake City is getting kids in caps and gowns.

"Truly, the best economic stimulus package for Salt Lake City and the nation is a diploma," Bob Wise, president of Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., told the Deseret News.

Wise, former governor of West Virginia, and his colleagues released the findings of a study Tuesday that illustrate how communities are negatively affected economically when students drop out of high school. Wise estimates that there were 3,500 dropouts from the Class of 2008 in Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties.

"We know that these dropouts face a harsh reality of fewer economic opportunities throughout their lifetime," Wise said. "However, these 3,500 students also represent an enormous missed economic opportunity to the community."

If half of those students hadn't dropped out, the metropolitan area could have seen an $18 million increase in earnings in an average year compared to their potential income without degrees, Wise said. Increased earnings could mean increased spending of $12 million, he said. And that additional spending could mean an additional 150 jobs.

What's more, the study says that 82 percent of high school graduates in Utah pursue some sort of post-secondary education.

"Everyone, particularly in the business community, from car dealers to Realtors to branch bank managers, local business people to home owners benefit directly, personally and economically when more students graduate from high school," Wise said.

Businesses have a vested interest in getting involved in education and encouraging young people to graduate, which is why the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce formed an Education Task Force. Mark Bouchard, senior managing director of CB Richard Ellis, heads the task force and said there's no question that the more educated people are, the better that community's economy.

"Businesses are the greatest consumer of the education system," Bouchard said. "We're directly impacted by the quality of the work force."

The more dropouts there are, the more people become dependent on state services, Bouchard said, so everyone who pays taxes is affected by high dropout rates.

The chamber's task force works with the Legislature, the city, United Way and other organizations to fight for funding for education in order to keep more students involved, Bouchard said.

"That high school dropout may not be their child and may live 10 miles away," Wise said. "But there's a direct economic link for all of us and how well those kids are doing."

Read the study results at www.all4ed.org/publication_material/EconMSA.

e-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com