Poll: Higher education helps Utahns get happier, wealthier
Poll • Degree holders have better health, career satisfaction.
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Lehi • A new survey underwritten by Utah's business community documents broad social and economic benefits enjoyed by those with college degrees, suggesting that public investment in higher education offers robust returns.

Degree holders are less likely to have been unemployed and to have tapped public assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid, according to a presentation to a legislative panel meeting Wednesday at Mountainland Applied Technology College. Those with degrees reported better health, greater career and personal satisfaction and greater community engagement, not to mention 75 percent greater earning power, said Randy Shumway, president of Salt Lake City market research firm Cicero Group. Average annual compensation is $28,600 versus $50,100 for those who graduated with a four-year degree.

"What we see from the survey is that the benefits go well beyond the paycheck," said Mark Bouchard, senior managing director of CB Richard Ellis.

Bouchard chairs Prosperity 2020, a partnership of a dozen Utah business groups that commissioned the survey to support its agenda to build a more educated workforce. Cicero sent invitations to 10,000 Utah residents who were randomly selected yet representative of the state's demographics. Researchers gathered data from 1,200 respondents.

The survey found college-educated Utahns enjoy greater job satisfaction, are more likely to have employer-based health and retirement benefits, and to report a good family life. The findings suggest that a college education is not just good for the degree holder, but for society at large, noted William Sederburg, commissioner of higher education.

He noted that the 28 percent of the population with a bachelor's degree pay nearly half the state's tax revenues. These people earn, on average, $650,000 more than high school graduates over the course of their lives, and with each graduation cycle, higher education is adding $377 million in potential earnings.

"Those who completed degrees are 2.6 times more likely to work in a salaried rather than an hourly job," Shumway told the Legislature's Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. This data unequivocally supports the state's goals, which Prosperity 2020 endorses, to dramatically increase the number of college-educated citizens, from about 40 to 60 percent of the adult population. But the question of how to accomplish that remains unanswered.

"We are trending in the wrong direction," said David Jordan, chairman of the Utah State Board of Regents. He said that in the 1990 Census, Utah was in the top third of states in terms of proportion of population with college degrees. By the 2010 Census, Utah had slipped to the bottom third, which he attributed in part to residents' propensity to marry and have children early in life.

When the panel pressed Shumway for recommendations, he counseled lawmakers to avoid being a "super school-board," instructing universities and colleges how to deliver education. He addressed head-on recent charges by conservative lawmakers that Utah schools are squandering resources by awarding "degrees to nowhere."

Developing students' skills for particular jobs might help their short-term employment prospects, "but in our changing knowledge-based economy, what's important is the ability to see and understand complexity in every problem," said Shumway, who once chaired the board of a large California school district.

"The Legislature's role isn't to say teach this, or teach it this way. You do that, you undermine your administrators," he said. "You can create outcome assessments, you can step back and measure and hold accountable."

bmaffly@sltrib.com —

Beyond the paycheck: What the survey found

Cicero Group's query of 1,200 Utah residents found that 23 percent of those without college degrees have experienced two or more years of unemployment, versus 9 percent for those with degrees. Those with degrees were 11 percent more likely to report that they enjoy personal happiness and good health, and are 50 percent more likely to have voted in the last state election. They also are more likely to have health insurance and a retirement plan through their jobs and to report a good family life and job satisfaction.