“Education is our country’s great equalizer”: grassroots organization is helping to increase the number of adults who pursue post-secondary education

Nearly half of Arizona’s 2017 high school graduating class enrolled in a two- or four-year college after graduation, according to an Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) 2018 College Enrollment and Completion report.

“Among 71,337 total high school graduates in 2017, nearly half – 33,812 – did not enroll in a two- or four-year institution,” the report said. “If educational attainment trends stay on their current trajectory, only 17.2 percent of today’s ninth graders will graduate from a four-year college by 2028.”

Rachel Yanof, Executive Director of Achieve60AZ, a grassroots alliance with the goal of getting 60 percent of adults to hold either a degree, license or certificate by 2030, says the number one reason students think they can’t access a two- or four-year college is affordability.

I think baked within affordability are a whole host of other challenges,” Yanof said. “Like can I afford the transportation to get there? Or if I get there, can my family afford for me not to work? For a lot of families, that’s one more income and when you’re living really close to the margin, it’s hard to make that decision.”  

Achieve60AZ is helping Arizona reach the goal of getting at least 50 percent of students to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

In the 2017-2018 academic year, 43 percent of Arizona high school seniors completed a FAFSA form.

“For the first time ever, Arizona has set a goal around FAFSA competition,” Yanof said. “We want to win on the FAFSA goal because not only is it an economic engine for our state… but also, it’s a pretty big win for a student because [they] may not think they have any money coming in.”

According to Yanof, two other huge barriers for students are community culture and the belief that post-secondary education isn’t necessary.  

There are some people who still do, despite evidence and factual bases, think that post-secondary isn’t necessary. That a high school degree is good enough and pursuing more education is not the right track for their family or their community,” she said. “Rural communities are getting smaller, they don’t want to lose their young people. So, going away to university or a community college seems like a betrayal to your community.”

In the future, seven out of ten jobs will require a post-secondary degree or credential. Yanof says Achieve60AZ helps by doing the behind the scenes work, helping educators and employers make connections, align their resources, and keep their eyes on the goal.

“Our role is to make sure the statewide goal remains the north star,” Yanof said. “We can champion the goal, we scream and yell about the goal, we will always do that so that it remains top of mind. Then use that to basically shore up and ensure that other people who are doing the work can do it at maximum capacity.”

Yanof says that the best way to talk to teenagers who do not want to go on to postsecondary education is to have them walk you through their decision.

“A student might say ‘I’m just going to work construction because that’s what my dad did.’ Then we can talk through that,” she said. “In their mind money is money is money and they don’t understand that a $24,000 a year income is not the kind of income that’s going to give them and their family economic freedom.”

ABOR’s report breaks down college enrollment and competition trends as well as the demographic and ethnic trends, to read the full report click here.

“Education is our country’s great equalizer. It’s not perfect, it’s not the only thing that solves challenges, but education opens doors that very few other things can.”

Emily Richardson

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