Rep. Burgess Owens told a room full of students at the University of Utah Wednesday that the country’s most valuable resource is its young people and that Utah should be an example to the rest of the country on how to help the next generation succeed.

“What we have here is not an accident. It’s a culture that we’ve fought for very hard to get passed down from one generation to the next,” Owens said.

The second-term congressman who represents Utah’s 4th Congressional District spoke about growing up with the values of “faith, family and a free market education,” values, he said, that are exemplified by Utah, and are what he wants to promote at the federal level.

His remarks, given at the university’s Hinckley Institute of Politics as part of the Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series, focused on how education plays into success, and what the federal government can do to help with access.

“In Congress, my priority is to ensure that all Utahns have access to a quality education to succeed in the classroom, workforce, workplace, and today’s economy,” Owens said.

This has been his priority since entering office, Owens said, which he is now pursuing as chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development.

The congressman recently introduced, along with fellow committee members, the Federal Assistance to Initiate Repayment (FAIR) Act. The bill would replace the Biden administration’s student loan proposals with targeted student loan relief and opportunities for new affordable repayment plans, creating a “responsible path back to repayment for 40 million borrowers.”

Owens has advocated for holding colleges and universities accountable for the success of their students in finding gainful employment, a theme he repeated to the Deseret News on Wednesday.

The real trouble with higher education, Owens said, is not so much its cost as its return on investment.

“We need to make sure that we have the metrics that we need to get the right product, to make sure our kids are coming out not only with degrees, but also have opportunities to get jobs,” Owens told the Deseret News.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, speaks during the Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series at the University of Utah Hinckley Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

And for education to lead to optimal employment outcomes, according to Owens, there needs to be increased “choices and options.”

During his brief speech Wednesday, Owens proposed expanding Pell grants to cover online programs because the flexibility of online classes is sometimes the only avenue for low income and working students.

He also expressed support for the recently reintroduced Senate bill, The Freedom to Invest in Tomorrow’s Workforce Act, which would “allow Americans to use 529 education savings accounts for skills training and certification programs” in addition to college, university and vocational school experiences.

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But Owens said such an expansion of educational opportunities must be met with an equally robust investment in transportation and infrastructure to meet the needs of young people flooding to tech and business hubs like Utah.

During a panel discussion with the Sutherland Institute’s vice president of strategy and communications, Nic Dunn, the congressman touted his efforts to help secure $60 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this year to modernize Utah’s TRAX light rail system.

Owens said all levels of government should remove regulations that increase costs in higher education, housing and the workforce and serve as a barrier, preventing the next generation from achieving a middle class lifestyle.

“Let’s not continue to export our most precious treasure, our kids. We need to make sure that we’re growing up in a place where our kids can afford to stay here,” Owens said.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, talks with University of Utah Air Force Junior ROTC members after speaking at the Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series at the University of Utah Hinckley Institute in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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