Addressing postsecondary attainment challenges

More than 45 percent of Arizona’s 2017 high school graduating class did not enroll in a two-year or four-year college following graduation, according to the 2018 College Enrollment and Completion Report.

As stated by the report, “This substantially lags the national average. Based on current available data, the immediate college enrollment rate for high school completers in 2016 was 69.8 percent.”

States across the country face unique challenges that affect postsecondary attainment, and Arizona is no stranger.

“We have a relatively low high school graduation rate compared to the rest of the country. We’ve seen pretty significant gains in high school graduation around the country over the last decade, and Arizona has remained relatively flat in that area,” John Arnold, Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) executive director, said.

As students grow to focus on their education goals and the graduation rate improves, it could lead more students to pursue postsecondary education.

“As part of being a high poverty state, our current four-year attainment lags the rest of the country,” Arnold said.

Research indicates that students are more likely now than before to pursue a bachelor’s degree even if their parents do not have one. However, those students are still less likely to attend a four-year college than students who have a parent with a bachelor’s degree, Arnold explained.

Although the state’s university system created pathways for low-income students to pursue postsecondary education, some students and families do not view it as an option.

“Getting that information down to family and students has had some difficulty. There’s just a general belief that students of low-income cannot go [to college],” Arnold said.

As Baby Boomers retire, employers need to ensure they can fill those positions with skilled workers who received the education necessary to do the job.

“Right now, our educational attainment is not reaching that level,” Arnold said. “I think there’s significant concern about just replacing the existing educated workforce in the state, not to mention trying to increase it.”

In addition to the wave of retiring workers, Arizona’s postsecondary attainment issue can hurt the economy.

“We’re lagging the rest of the country in educational attainment, specifically four-year educational attainment. As that disparity gets broader, I definitely think it will have a significant impact on Arizona’s economy,” Arnold explained.

If the educational attainment level in Arizona doesn’t improve to match other states, it could draw people to other parts of the country for work.

ABOR is taking a number of steps to tackle the challenges Arizona faces in an effort to improve postsecondary enrollment and completion.

“One of the key elements that we have to do is communicate better with students and their families,” Arnold said.

He asked, “How can we reach students much earlier in their lives to help them understand that they can go to college, that there are pathways for them to go to college?”

ABOR is considering partnering with education-focused organizations throughout the state to improve communication with Arizona students and their families.

“We’re looking at developing a curriculum that we can give to middle school and high school counselors, so they know how to better speak to students about going off to college.”

ABOR can reach students and families with information to put them on the track to college through relationships the business community has created.  

“We want to make sure that what we’re doing as a higher education system is in line with what the business community needs.”

Arizona businesses have communication channels that ABOR has not yet developed, Arnold explained. So, creating and maintaining a strong relationship with the business community can aid in relaying information to students and families.

“As we continue to build this out I think there will be a number of other ways for the business community to engage with this,” Arnold said.

Sierra Ciaramella

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