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John Spillman always knew he would go to college. His parents had told him he would for as long as he can remember.
But now the University of Utah senior in political science and sociology with aspirations for a doctorate and a professorship realizes obtaining a four-year degree is one of the best moves he will make in life.
"I've been captivated by the social justice movement, and the best way I can contribute to that is by getting an education," he said.
His friend, William Spiegel, a U. junior in English, sees the value of a degree, too, especially for anyone who wants a high-paying job.
"The expectation for your level of education is different now, and you want to keep up," he said.
Spiegel and Spillman may know what their degrees are worth, but an increasing number of Utahns don't.
The National Conference of State Legislatures' Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education in a recent report decried the fact that fewer 25- to 34-year-olds in Utah and nationwide are earning bachelor's degrees.
Utah ranks 12th in the nation for 45- to 64-year-olds who hold bachelor's degrees, but for those 25 to 34, the state falls to 31st. In the past 10 years, the percentage of Utahns ages 25 to 34 with bachelor's degrees has slipped from 41 percent to 26 percent.
Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Kendell is troubled by the decline. "How many high-paying jobs are there with a high school diploma? Zero," he said.
Kendell and other officials have found no easy explanation for the decline.
Neil Fockel, a counselor at Bonneville Junior High in Holladay, says fewer are obtaining bachelor's degrees because many high-paying technical jobs nowadays require only two years of training, so not everyone needs a four-year degree.
And when demand for labor is high, even students without two-year degrees leave the classroom for the workplace to pursue high wages.
Some students say they forgo degrees simply because they find college unaffordable.
Paul Brinkman, U. associate vice president for budget and planning, goes as far as to say young people are less driven than their parents' generation.
Each of these explanations, though, presents its own complexities.
Students who drop out of college to take advantage of a hot labor market often find the high salaries they earn are temporary. "In the short term, they're getting a nice gain," said Mark Knold, chief economist for Utah's Department of Workforce Services. "But in the long haul, they need a degree if they want to move out of a company and onward."
The same often holds true for those who pursue two-year degrees in technical fields, Kendell said. While many jobs requiring a two-year degree, such as journeymen electricians and plumbers, pay high wages, it's difficult to switch careers if a change becomes necessary.
"A wage of $10 or $13 may seem like good money to an 18-year-old, but it's not good for a 34-year-old who owns a house," he said.
As for affordability, Utah tuition rates compare favorably with those in other states. A USNews.com ranking just last week put all four-year Utah public colleges in the top quartile in the nation for affordability.
The bigger problem may be that Utahns don't plan and save for college, and may not fully exploit all the financing options available to them.
The Utah Educational Savings Plan, which offers tax advantages to those who save money for their children's college expenses, has more than 83,000 accounts valued at $1.8 billion. But as of Nov. 30, only 8 percent of the assets UESP holds are from Utah residents, spokeswoman Amy Steinbrech said.
"One of the things that we're interested in finding out is if potential students have thought through all of the financial angles," the U.'s Brinkman said.
Those angles include institution-provided and private scholarships, need-based state and federal grants and interest-free student loans.
"We wonder how many people are taking part in that deliberative calculation to figure out if they can afford college," he said.
Brinkman fears a diminishing work ethic may be part of the explanation.
"I just don't know if people are still willing to put forth the effort," he said. "Maybe for some reason they're not so inclined to go to college because they had it a little easier. They're more of a TV generation instead of book generation. Maybe in our day, if it's not instant gratification or close to it, it's not worth it."
But Pamela Perlich, a demographer at the U. Bureau of Economic and Business Research, offers an alternative explanation.
She said a greater percentage of the state's population is made up of ethnic minorities who traditionally have not attended college at the same rate as white students, so even though college enrollment among whites has not fallen, the fact that Latinos, in particular, often don't go to college brings down the overall percentage of degree attainment.
"Our 18- to 24-year-old population that's essentially flat in growth is being more heavily populated by people with lower-skilled jobs who are not academically prepared for college," she said. "Whatever growth we have in that demographic is people coming to the state for jobs."
Because there's no simple explanation for why fewer Utahns are completing degrees, officials such as Kendell are in a quandary.
For now, they'll continue to explore ways to encourage attendance among those not inclined to enroll in college or simply finish their degrees once they start.
Hopefully, more Utahns will heed the advice of students such as Spillman.
"A bachelor's degree is a way to get your foot in the door to most of the companies in this country, and then you can work your way up from there," he said.
* SHEENA McFARLAND can be contacted at smcfarland @sltrib.com or 801-257-8619.