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On Thursday, Tara Godwin will graduate from Bingham High with roughly a dozen college credits under her belt.

The West Jordan senior has an internship lined up for the summer and, come fall, she'll start her first semester at the University of Utah.

Godwin hasn't made up her mind on a major. She's leaning toward chemistry, but might consider business.

"I want to keep the door open for med school," she said. "But I haven't explored all my options."

Between 35,000 and 40,000 students will graduate from Utah's public high schools this year. Most school districts will pass out diplomas this week.

From this point on, the Class of 2015 will diverge.

Many will continue their educations, at a college or university or through professional training, but some will struggle to scrape together a way to pay for it.

Others will put off college to immediately go on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a change in policy for the faith that is entering its third academic year.

A good number will bypass higher education altogether.

If patterns for Utah high school graduates hold, less than half of them will have a bachelor's degree in six years. In 2007, just 41 percent of students who enrolled in a Utah public college or university successfully completed an associate degree in three years or a bachelor's degree in six years, according to the most recent data from the Utah System of Higher Education.

Even for those like Godwin, with explicit goals and a timeline in mind, there's no guarantee of success.

Last year, one out of every four Utah high school graduates earned the minimum scores to be considered "college ready" on all four subjects of the ACT exam.

And scores from Utah's statewide tests, designed to track progress toward college- and career-readiness, show most students falling short of grade-level expectations.

"It certainly paints a picture that we do need to be doing a better job for our students," said Diana Suddreth, director of teaching and learning for the Utah Office of Education.

Bridge between high school and college

A perfect score on the ACT is 36 and a "college-ready" score ranges from 18 to 23, depending on the test subject.

The college readiness benchmarks are set by ACT as a best guess at the achievement level a college freshman needs to have a 50 percent chance of earning a B grade in a first-year course.

Suddreth said ACT and other test scores offer a baseline to evaluate college preparedness, but low performance should not be seen as a disqualifier for college attendance.

"What it tells me is those [college-ready] students are very prepared to go to college," she said, "and others who want to go need additional support."

But that extra help becomes the duty of college and university officials, who are expected to take in potentially unprepared students and carry them toward graduation. Low graduation rates suggest many of them won't make it.

The disconnect between high school's cocoon and the wide open world of college can be particularly difficult for first-generation college students, who don't have a familial history of higher-education experience on which to rely, according to Kevin Miller, director of Student Conduct and Support Services for Salt Lake Community College.

"A lot of times," Miller said, "a student, brand new to college, won't even realize the questions they need answers to."

While Utah's college-readiness numbers may be low, the state's higher-education aspirations are high.

Just a fourth of students hit the ACT's college-ready benchmark scores, but a student survey that accompanies the test found that 86 percent of Utah's 2014 graduates intended to enroll in post-secondary education.

In his role at SLCC, Miller oversees a program that pairs student mentors with incoming freshmen to provide guidance and support.

He is also involved with the Bridge program, a partnership between SLCC and the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center that familiarizes high school seniors with the resources of a college campus through a class hosted at SLCC.

"We want them to have a solid footing under them," Miller said, "so they're ready to do that college-level work and be successful."

Tony Hernandez, a student in the Bridge class, said he never thought he would graduate from high school. His mother died of cancer when he was 10 years old. And when Hernandez starts classes at SLCC this fall, he'll be the first member of his family to attend college. He eventually hopes to study music engineering.

"I'm doing this for my mom," he said. "She always dreamed of me going to college."

Andrea Alvarez, another Bridge student, said she felt "mostly" ready for college. But she expects some subjects will be more challenging than others.

"I'm going to take math and English [first]," she said, "because my brother said those are the classes you need to get out of the way."

Suddreth acknowledges the need to increase college readiness among Utah students. But independent of those test scores, she says, a student who chooses to pursue a degree or certificate should be given a chance to succeed.

"What we want is everybody who wants to go to college to be able to go to college," Suddreth said. "Our ultimate goal is that people have jobs and support their families. Those are the metrics we need to be looking at."

Lure of a paycheck

Despite Utah's high numbers of college-aspiring students, many of this year's graduates will choose to forgo higher education and get a job instead.

Carrie Mayne, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said the economy has largely rebounded from the Great Recession and "it's a really good time to be out looking for a job."

But additional workforce and academic training can pay off in the long run, Mayne noted, both in terms of higher salaries and lower rates of unemployment.

The median income for a Utah worker with a bachelor's degree is $41,156, compared with $26,724 for someone with only a high school diploma, according to DWS data.

And the unemployment rate for Utah's high school graduates is more than double the rate for college graduates with bachelor's degrees — 10.5 percent compared with 4.3 percent.

Mayne said that, with a strong economy, high school graduates are often able to find work and the prospect of additional schooling can be unappealing. But when the economy declines, she said, employees with less formal training are frequently the first to be let go.

"It's about a long-term investment in your lifetime career," she said. "Don't just take the first thing that's dropped in your lap because it's going to pay well."

The lure of a paycheck affects Utah's enrolled college students as well.

Utahns graduate with less student debt than their national peers.

But Mary Parker, an associate vice president at the University of Utah, said that is due to students taking fewer classes in order to hold a job, rather than take out a loan and sprint through their degree programs.

"Our students are very much averse to taking out student loans," she said. "So they work, and that does impact our graduation rates."

The Utah System of Higher Education recently launched its "15 to Finish" campaign, which encourages students to enroll in 15 credit hours each semester — the minimum needed to earn a bachelor's degree in four years.

Organizers say the "15 to Finish" push is meant to help save students the time and cost of a protracted education.

At SLCC, Miller said most students take eight or nine credits each semester, which stretches what would normally be a two-year associate-degree program to three to five years.

Added to the cost of extra semesters, Utahns are known for leaving financial aid money on the table.

Only 34 percent of high school seniors complete a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the lowest percentage of any state, according to a report released in March by the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education.

Students who complete the Bridge program receive a scholarship from Horizonte, and Hernandez said the class also helps participants file a FAFSA and look for other scholarship opportunities.

"They helped me a lot," Hernandez said. "Hopefully, by the time we're done with this Bridge class, I'll be ready."

Godwin said balancing work and school is the one thing she's nervous about as she prepares to transition away from high school.

It's "bittersweet" to graduate but it helps that she's attending the University of Utah, which allows her to move out of the house but stay relatively close to home.

"I'm ready to move on and I'm ready to do other things," she said. "It's just something you've got to do and that's the way of life."

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