Higher education, a route for millions of people to achieve their dreams, has long been a source of pride for America. Utah’s colleges and universities have produced globally renowned advances in medicine, technology, social sciences and other disciplines. Yet recent national and local polling reveals discontent among citizens regarding these once-celebrated institutions.

A recent Wall Street Journal/NORC poll revealed that 56% of Americans believe a university degree “is not worth the cost.” Especially problematic is the 42% of respondents with college degrees who doubt its value. Sixty percent of 18 to 34-year-olds shared this view. Accompanying this trend is the concern that many campuses are governed by left-wing extremists who stifle expression of conservative opinions. What is the impact of these sentiments on policy deliberations and elections? 

Pignanelli: “Higher education should be based on quality not quantity; receive merit-based funding and be free of unnecessary bureaucracy.” — Ahmed Zewail, Ph.D., Nobel laureate 

As with most families, mine treasured education, thereby prompting my wife and me to secure graduate degrees. Despite this nurturing environment, my children — and those of friends and others — harbor a suspicion that college provides limited value. Initially difficult for me to understand, over time my interactions with higher education — as a parent, donor, adjunct professor, lawmaker, lobbyist, political gadfly — created similar doubts. Apparently, millions share the perceptions that universities deviated from their highest mission of prioritizing the student.

Higher education created the challenges they are now facing through unreasonable tuition increases to feed bloated institutions, dismissal of practical instruction, and lack of accountabilities. Diversity of personal characteristics are properly cherished, but not various political opinions. 

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Government officials understand the nation cannot be competitive in the 21st century with a dysfunctional higher education structure. The experience and knowledge colleges impart are critical to success in many arenas. These universal concerns create fabulous rhetoric for political speeches that appeal across the demographic spectrum. Therefore, federal and state lawmakers will consider aggressive efforts to audit and eventually restructure. Public colleges have little time to reform before change is forced.

The answer is elementary — pay attention to the needs of the customer.

Webb: Utah’s universities are enormous assets to the state and its citizens. They perform basic research, prepare young people for good paying jobs and provide entertainment via sports, arts and cultural events. Many technology companies want to locate close to universities.

But the old higher education model doesn’t work for many people. It badly needs updating. Most good jobs that can support a family require post-high school training, but not four years of college. It is a positive move by some private companies and governments to eliminate degree requirements for jobs. Actual experience and competency is a better way to assess prospective employees than time spent in a classroom.

Costs and skyrocketing tuition are also big issues. Higher education reform is much needed and ought to be a focus of Utah’s governor and Legislature.

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A Hinckley Institute of Politics/Deseret News poll showed 55% of Utahns disapproved of Pres. Joe Biden’s initiative to relieve student loan debt for millions of former college students. Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney recently sponsored a resolution demanding suspension of Biden’s plan. Other members of Utah’s congressional delegation have expressed similar opposition. How will this play in local politics?

Pignanelli: Utahns pride themselves on frugality and honoring obligations. Because the student debt relief program smacks of political grandstanding, opponents will weaponize its unpopularity in elections. Local Democrats must craft messaging that avoids defense of the status quo.

Webb: A number of years ago I met a young lady from a difficult background who had been in and out of college for 10 years. She had a baby along the way, changed majors several times, and never got a degree. But over this period, with the help of college advisors, she mastered the art of obtaining student loans and she racked up $130,000 in college debt.

This young lady meant well, but she was naïve and undisciplined. College education and the availability of easy loans didn’t help her. In many ways it ruined her life. It’s almost like college took advantage of her, taking her money for tuition and fees, and leaving her with no job and a mountain of debt she had no ability to pay off.

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The former student bears plenty of responsibility herself. But student loans have been a windfall for colleges and universities and have contributed to ballooning tuition costs. They’ve made it easy to be irresponsible and enjoy fun college life, postponing the inevitable consequences. Forgiving student loans would make the problem worse by incentivizing bad behavior. It would be terrible public policy and Utah leaders are right to oppose it.

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Does Utah have the potential to craft comprehensive reform of public higher education that could be a national model? 

Pignanelli: The geography, demographics and cultural aspects of the state create a perfect laboratory for Utah officials and higher education bigwigs to restructure our public universities. There will be resistance, but the stakes are too high to ignore. Utah’s economic vitality depends upon a successful reform endeavor.

Webb: One great model Utah already has is Western Governors University (WGU), which is laser-focused on preparing students for careers. It is competency-based; seat-time is irrelevant. Students attend remotely, with close supervision and frequent faculty contact. They get credit for skills and competency acquired outside of school. WGU is fully accredited and respected nationally. 

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semi-retired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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