Focus on what today’s students need, Gov. Cox says at awards luncheon

September 07, 2023 (

While Utah has seen great education outcomes — including increasing the percentage of students who graduate high school in Utah since 2013 — there are still improvements to be made, speakers at the Utah Foundation’s annual awards luncheon agreed Monday.

“We are at a time when families, parents, students, employers, everyone is re-evaluating what the value proposition of education actually is — what is it we’re trying to accomplish with education? Is it just education for education’s sake? … Is it just about the economy?” Gov. Spencer Cox said. “We are looking so much at systems and institutions that we forget about the students and who they are, where they are, how they are.”

Cox referred to statistics shared with him by University of Utah President Taylor Randall that 18-year-olds entering college in 2023 have had, on average, 15,000 fewer face-to-face interactions throughout their lives than middle-aged adults today had. The significance behind the statistic is that things are different for kids today, meaning education needs to be shaped based on what kids today need rather than what legislators and professionals wish they had growing up, Cox said.

The Utah Foundation is a nonprofit organization that seeks to “produce objective, thorough and well-reasoned research and analysis that promotes the effective use of public resources, a thriving economy, a well-prepared workforce and a high quality of life for Utahns,” its mission statement says.

The foundation uses its annual luncheons to award the Insight Award to outstanding civic leaders “who, through a career of service or philanthropic support, have worked with integrity to provide insights in the public policy arena with the aim of improving government,” its website says. This year’s awardees were former state Senate and House legislator Patrice Arent, and former Gov. Gary Herbert, both being recognized for the work they have accomplished for education in Utah.

Richard Nye, the superintendent of Granite School District in Salt Lake County, said that Utah high school graduation rates have grown from below 82% in 2013 to above 88% in 2022.

“Education is a promise to children … we are going to, hand in hand with parents, provide a high-quality education,” Nye said. He emphasized that this means making graduation the goal from when students start kindergarten, and treating high school graduation as a “through-point,” not an endpoint. To do this, Nye said to prioritize access to and success in advanced coursework: AP classes, concurrent enrollment and career and technical education certificates.

To get a better perspective on the education system, the Utah Foundation invited University of Utah student Navaeh Olmedo to speak at the luncheon, providing insights from the life of a first-generation college student and second-generation Mexican American.

“Not only was the adjustment to college extremely challenging, but in the midst of a pandemic, it was nearly impossible to build a community,” Olmedo said. She explained that she didn’t know how to network or find internships because of the limited resources available for first-generation college students.

After transferring to the University of Utah from Utah Tech University, Olmedo was directed to the U.’s PATHS program, which helped her secure three scholarships and navigate being a college student.

“Without (these) resources, I don’t think I would have been able to continue my education,” Olmedo said.

Others who spoke at the luncheon were Jared Haines, senior advisor to the commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, and Michelle Comacho, dean of the University of Utah’s College of Social and Behavioral Science.

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