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Opinion: This is the greatest gift you can give a child

Earnings are just one benefit of a college education. We also know there are so many others

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Graduates throw their caps in the air at the conclusion of commencement ceremonies.

Graduates throw their caps in the air at the conclusion of commencement ceremonies. Helping children and grandchildren get a college degree may be the best gift they ever receive.

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During this holiday season, I often reflect on gifts that are well beyond those that can be found under a Christmas tree.

I’ve had many experiences this past year that have continued to remind me that a college education is one of the most powerful gifts any of us can receive. And, as a parent and grandparent, our support for their education — financial, emotional, physical and spiritual — is one of the most powerful gifts we can give to our children and grandchildren. In fact, former Utah Gov. Olene Walker taught me over a decade ago that I needed to start a My529 savings plan for college costs for each of my future grandchildren. Now that I have grandchildren, I have done just that.

Why is higher education such a powerful gift? Let me give you some reminders: It opens doors to many opportunities that would not otherwise be available to most people. This includes having more occupational choices and career opportunities; greater access to health care, retirement plans and other types of benefits; lower unemployment rates and incidence of poverty; greater likelihood of being safe on the job; and higher levels of compensation.

The last perk is the one most people are familiar with. In fact, lifetime earnings are substantially higher with each college degree earned.

Now, there are constant conversations in our state — primarily because of our serious talent shortage — about helping people return to workforce. In fact, I am in conversations daily about this topic as it focuses on women.

I admit that it is essential that everyone should gain basic skills and capacities so they can earn a living wage as quickly as possible. However, research continues to tell us that “employers value college graduates’ dispositions toward capacities such as expanding their learning, being self-motivated, engaging constructively with feedback and persisting through failure.” In fact, a significant percentage of employers still value the mindset and skillsets that come from people who have a well-rounded education.

The beauty is it does not need to be either/or. Utah residents can get training quickly and then continue their education while earning a living and supporting their families. Even better, let’s get all our youth to finish high school and then immediately jump into postsecondary education of some kind — there are so many options.

And young people who serve Latter-day Saint missions can be ready to jump back in within weeks of returning if they plan ahead and parents help.

As listed above, earnings are just one benefit of a college education. We also know there are so many other benefits of completing college degrees that can be just as important — and the more education, the more benefits.

For example, more educated people tend to engage in healthier behaviors like exercising more, eating more nutritious meals, taking advantage of preventative health care opportunities, and participating less in smoking and other harmful habits. Because of this, they live longer and more healthy lives. In fact, years ago I wrote about a study that found that spouses of educated people also live longer.

Research also shows that more educated people also tend to be more engaged and active community members and provide better opportunities for their children. They volunteer more, vote more often, and are more likely to donate blood. Interestingly, research has found that the probability that your children will be in prison or jail is almost five times lower if they have college degrees.

And, according to some studies, the probability of your children marrying and staying married is higher if they are college educated. Overall, college-educated parents are more likely to have college-educated children and grandchildren, who then also pick up the benefits just highlighted.

So this season as you reflect on gifts given and received, take a minute to appreciate the ways in which education has enhanced your life. Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I sometimes imagine the opportunities, growth, and experiences I would have missed had I not pursued higher education. Those blessings are more than I can count. And as I wonder what to get my grandkids, while I will have something tangible for them to put under the tree, I will also contribute to their futures, to the education that will enrich and sustain them in their not-too-distant futures. Education is the gift that keeps on giving.