Bill aims to help 720,000 adults in state without high school diploma


More than 721,000 adults in Arizona do not have a high school degree, according to U.S. Census data. State lawmakers are considering a bill to allow tuition-free public high schools for adults to help move them up the career ladder and into higher income tax brackets. 

The nonprofit Goodwill of Central and Northern Arizona is proposing to start a pilot program here to duplicate the success of adult high schools in other states, called Excel Centers.

Research studies commissioned by Goodwill to measure the impact find that the model is putting adults to work and into post-secondary education in significant numbers, said Betsy Delgado, vice president of Education Initiatives for Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana in Indianapolis, where the first Excel school opened 10 years ago. Today, there are 18 schools in the state.

Delgado, who testified before Arizona’s House Education Committee this month, said the studies show that about 30 percent of students are employed upon enrollment. But within six months of graduating, 70 percent are working and 38 percent are in college.  

On average, students who attend the schools experience a 50 percent increase in their pay, research shows. Many move off of public assistance rolls. 

Rep. Michelle Udall, chair of the House Education Committee, said at the hearing that she proposed the bill because of the “incredible” results that are backed up by data.

Extending free high school beyond age 21

The bill, HB 2387, is needed because current Arizona law only provides a free high school education to students up to age 22. After that, there are a few alternatives like a GED.

More alternatives are needed to fill this gap in Arizona’s education system, Jay Kaprosy, a representative for Goodwill, told the committee. 

“For 700,000-plus individuals, we’ve got to get them to step one, which is that high school diploma,” Kaprosy said. “There’s a huge untapped potential there.” 

If the state Legislature approves the measure, Excel Center schools would be free for  residents without a high school diploma who are 18 or older. The schools would operate as charter schools under the authority of the state Board of Education and Board for Charter Schools.

The bill appears to have bipartisan support. It passed through the House Education Committee by an 11-1 vote. 

Childcare, transportation assistance, life coaching 

Goodwill officials attribute the success of the Excel model to its 118-year-history of serving the poor in the United States. The charity has long provided job training, employment placement services, and other community-based programs.

The school model is designed to address educational barriers, accelerate coursework and career readiness, and increase college attendance among this population. 

At Excel Center schools, students can access free childcare onsite, transportation assistance, career and life coaching, and other support services. 

First school in Phoenix neighborhood with high dropout numbers  

If the bill is approved and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey, a pilot school would open in August 2021 in a Central Phoenix neighborhood where more than 50 percent of residents do not have a high school degree, said Katrina Thurman, executive director of the Excel Center Initiative in Arizona. 

It would enroll up to 350 students the first year. If successful, Goodwill plans to open 22 schools across central and northern Arizona over ten years, she said.

Eventual economic impact to state: $5.3 billion

An economic impact analysis for Arizona conducted by Rounds Consulting Group shows that at build-out with 22 schools, Arizona would see an estimated $1.9 billion growth in total wages and $5.3 billion in added economic input. 

Whether students graduate or not, they would see an annualized wage increase of $17,160 per year, according to the analysis. 

Flexible locations 

Currently, there are Excel Center schools in five states and the District of Columbia.

They are located on or near college campuses, career and technical education schools, at corporate sites, and other locations where educational and workforce development partnerships can take place. One Excel school is located at the Lockhart Women’s prison near Austin, Texas. 

An average student can expect to graduate in about a year with a diploma or workplace certification, Thurman said. 

“This is something that could actually break the cycle of poverty,” she said. “It has the potential with every student to change not just their life but their children who are now going to see mom or dad walk across the stage at 30 years old with a graduation cap on.

“That mom and dad can come home at night to study means their children are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college.”

Research findings

Since opening 10 years ago, the Excel Center has used third-party research centers to evaluate its impact on graduates and the state of Indiana as a whole. Here are some of their findings:

Employment impact 

–Research by the Laboratory for Economic Outcomes (LEO) at the University of Notre Dame found that graduates of the Excel Center are significantly more likely to be employed than adults without a high school diploma and also realize a significant increase in earnings. 

–LEO research suggests that the average wage increase for a graduate is approximately $9,000. That number grows to $12,000 per graduate when those who are unemployed or are attending college are excluded from the analysis.  

Post-secondary impact 

–Seventy percent of Excel Center graduates enter the workforce after graduation and 38 percent go on to pursue higher education, according to a 2017 research study by the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy (CEEP) at Indiana University Bloomington.

–Within the first six months after graduation, graduates of Excel experienced an average 50 percent wage increase, according to the CEEP study.

For more information about Excel Center schools, go to: The Excel Center.

Victoria Harker

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