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My view: Early childhood education is important for Utah's economic and educational goals

Sustained growth of Utah's vibrant economy depends on an educated, innovative workforce to meet today's demands and to create tomorrow's opportunities.
Sustained growth of Utah's vibrant economy depends on an educated, innovative workforce to meet today's demands and to create tomorrow's opportunities.
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Utah’s economy is thriving, with the fourth-lowest unemployment rate in the nation. Business and industry leaders implore the University of Utah to deliver more high-talent graduates, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and including people from diverse backgrounds. Sustained growth of Utah’s vibrant economy depends on an educated, innovative workforce to meet today’s demands and to create tomorrow’s opportunities.

The Utah Technology Council has facilitated partnerships to address workforce needs, particularly in engineering and science fields. For example, the Engineering Initiative has garnered new state funding to support growth in the number of baccalaureate-degree engineers, with matching funds from the state’s universities.

The University of Utah has significantly increased scholarship funding, with the aim of enhancing access and college completion. There is evidence these efforts are paying off: The U has realized a 9 percent increase in graduation rate over the past five years.

For the long term, though, Utah’s quest for graduates will not be met through efforts aimed only at the college level. Too many Utahns do not participate in any post-secondary education or do not complete a degree if they enroll in college. Nearly 30 percent of Utah’s working-age adults started college but left without earning a degree, among the highest percentage of adults in any U.S. state.

We are missing a potent opportunity to raise educational attainment in Utah in those with insufficient access to quality early-childhood education, particularly for children from low-income families. Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen summarized relevant research at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality in 2014: “Children from lower-income households who get good-quality pre-kindergarten education are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.”

Economic returns for investments in early childhood education are high, significantly greater than investments made later in the educational process. Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman calculated the annual financial return on investment in early education to be 6 to 10 percent. The “Heckman Equation” makes clear that investments in starting ahead are far more effective — in cost and in benefit — than those focused on catching up.

Many cities and states have recognized the benefits of early education and designed programs that meet the needs of young children and families. Denver, for example, launched the Denver Preschool Program about a decade ago, to provide voluntary universal access to quality early education for every 4-year-old in the city. Ten-year data demonstrate program effectiveness, and voters reaffirmed a modest sales tax levy in 2016 to continue program support.

The U will amplify efforts to recruit, enroll, support and graduate Utah’s residents to meet the needs of industry and society. In parallel, we partner with community stakeholders to expand high-quality education programs for Utah’s youngest residents, so they begin early to aspire to attend the U and gain the knowledge and skills necessary for full access to our thriving Utah economy. Our collective prosperity depends on it.

Ruth Watkins is the senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah. A symposium on early childhood education is being hosted by the University of Utah, in partnership with Salt Lake City and County, Granite and Salt Lake School Districts, United Way of Salt Lake, Head Start and other community organizations on Monday, Sept. 26.