- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Less than half of students who enroll in Utah’s colleges and universities finish bachelor’s degrees within six years, but that’s not simply because a significant portion of the state’s young people go on Mormon missions.

Avoiding student debt could be one unexpected factor in the state’s below-average college graduation rate, according to a report released this week.

Students who leave for missionary work are generally excluded from federal calculations that put Utah’s graduation rate at about 47 percent, according to the Utah Foundation, a state think tank.

That’s lower than the national average, and not finishing college is costly for both students and for the state, which spent some $67 million from 2003 to 2008 on students who enrolled but didn’t come back for a second year, according to the report released Tuesday titled “Steps Forward in Higher Ed.”

About 15 percent of Utah students who started in 2004 interrupted their studies to serve two-year missions for the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that does play a big role in Utah’s college landscape. Students who start school after missions are more likely to be married and have families, and juggling those competing demands is tough.

“It never gets easier, the older you get,” said Dave Buher, Utah commissioner of higher education. But it’s worth the time: People with a college degree earn significantly more money over their working lives, and the gap between those with high school and secondary degrees has only grown wider over the last generation, the report states.

Balancing family and school isn’t the only thing stretching out college careers. Utah has one of the country’s lowest percentages of residents with student debt, and not because the state has relatively low tuition, said Shawn Teigen, research director on the report.

“Maybe it’s a cultural thing, we want to pay for school as well as go and not incur debt,” he said. But with tuition on the rise and states, including Utah, increasingly shifting the cost of a public education to students, it’s hard to work through school.

“Time is the enemy of graduating,” said Teigen. Avoiding debt too much can put a degree and its potential for higher earnings out of reach.

The report calls on college administrators to define a specific path to graduation, and asks lawmakers to consider offering extra funding to schools who hit graduation-rate targets.

But the state’s graduation rates do improve over a longer 8-year time frame, showing a different path to a diploma doesn’t mean graduation is out of reach.

South Jordan resident Elizabeth Cantiberos started school at 19 but put her studies on the back burner to get married and become a mother.

After her marriage ended, though, she needed a degree.

“I didn’t realize how fast time slips away,” she said.

Now 31, Cantiberos finished her welding degree at Weber State University in December, and got a job before she graduated.

“I’m not going to struggle to be middle class. I want to take care of myself have a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “I have to support a child, and I want to do something that makes me happy.”

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