Arizona’s residents are growing less educated and less trained at a time when higher education and better job skills matter more than ever in the workforce.
Hundreds of thousands of people need to catch up. If the trend isn’t reversed, it could weaken the state’s economy and the quality of life, making Arizona a less desirable place to live, work and raise a family.
The issue is rarely discussed outside education circles, but the facts paint a stark picture of a state on the verge of failing its kids.
Arizona’s older residents, in general, are more educated than their peers around the country, with the state ranking in the top 20 for college education for those over age 65, according to the state demographer.
But younger Arizonans are falling far behind on higher education. For people age 25 to 34, Arizona ranks 40th in the nation for bachelor's degrees or higher.
Here's what it could mean if the state continues on this path: Just 17% of today's ninth-graders would hold a bachelor's degree by 2028, a report from the Arizona Board of Regents projected.
Compounding the problem, the state ranks in the bottom five for students filling out the form that unlocks financial aid and loans. That means millions of dollars in federal funds are left on the table while students worry they can't afford college.
Some Arizona high schools' requirements for graduation are below the minimum standards to enter the state’s public four-year universities.
Also lagging are those who live in rural areas and students of color, of particular concern in a state where the K-12 school system is growing more diverse.
And 13% of Arizonans age 16 to 24 — about 117,000 people, according to Expect More Arizona — aren’t in school and aren't working.
The state’s education and political leaders are taking some action, but it’s low-key, lightly funded and little coordinated.
If Arizona doesn't drastically increase the number of people who get degrees or certificates after high school, the consequences could be extreme.
Many people could be stuck with low wages. Their jobs will be more susceptible to replacement by robots. The number of people on public assistance likely will increase, creating a greater burden on government coffers.
The state could lose jobs to neighboring states, as they work harder to improve post-high school education. Colorado already is more educated and trained, and is planning to improve further.
Arizona could step up, education advocates say, by setting clear steps to increase the percentage of high school graduates who get some kind of further education or training.
The payoff could be huge.
Individually, people will make more money on the job and have ample opportunities for better positions. Education typically improves health, too. They might participate more in democracy, through voting and civic engagement.
Arizona could win high-paying jobs from industries that attract even more educated workers.
The state could thrive.
"We need to do better," Gov. Doug Ducey said. "We've seen improvement over the last four years. And we need to see continual improvement. I mean, I've said a dozen times, so much so that reporters roll their eyes when I say it: We're never going to check the box on education."
The barriers between Arizona high school graduates and training or education after they get a diploma — money, time, preparedness — are sometimes insurmountable for an individual, particularly a young person whose family isn't highly educated and who doesn't attend a quality high school.
The state is increasing the number of students who receive some kind of training after high school, but not enough to keep up with the rest of the nation. And while enrollment at universities has increased over the past decade, that's partly due to a growing population and the recruitment of out-of-state students who pay higher tuition.
The Maricopa Community College system has declined, though, falling to about 167,000 students last school year from about 215,000 in 2010.
The state's economy, which once didn't necessarily require a degree for success, has tilted in favor of those with some kind of post-high school training.
"Arizona has a history of having a workforce that has been relatively low-skilled," said Martin Van Der Werf, associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
"A lot of the economy has been driven by jobs in things like construction where you don’t necessarily need to have a college degree. ... Arizona needs to grow into its status. It’s now got a sizable population. It’s not just a growth-oriented state. It’s becoming a mature economy now."
The state set a goal three years ago to increase its post-high-school attainment to 60% by 2030, without setting specific policies on how to achieve that. That's 1 million more Arizonans who will need to get degrees or credentials over the next decade.
Now, the state sits at 45%, according to Expect More Arizona's Education Progress Meter. Arizona won't reach its goal at its current pace.
Other states are doing more to improve, such as changing policies that may hinder college-going and providing more financial aid programs.
"Here, we don’t have buy-in yet in the culture that educational attainment is as important as it is," said Arizona State University President Michael Crow.
"In North Dakota, they have it. In Iowa, they have it. In Texas, they have it. In Utah, they have it. In Georgia, they have it. In Florida, they have it."
It takes years — often decades — to dramatically increase a state's education level. Arizona faces a decision now, education advocates say.
"Arizona could double down on being a low-wage, low education state, and then we become a state that can’t sustain ourselves," said Rachel Yanof, the executive director of Achieve60AZ, the group behind an effort to dramatically increase post-high school education and training.
"And we're going to find ourselves in a place where our social-service burden is higher than our tax base. And suddenly we are really an undesirable place for any people. And that would be really sad.”
Why aren't they going?
College may just be too expensive for some. Or they may not have had the right classes in high school. Perhaps higher education will take them too far from home. Maybe their parents didn't go, so it's tough to navigate without guidance.
In talking with students, educators, advocates and policymakers, three major barriers that hinder Arizonans' access to training and education beyond high school stood out.
The Arizona Republic will explore these barriers in a series of reports:
No money. The cost of college across the nation, including in Arizona, has skyrocketed over the past two decades. High school graduates say it's just too expensive, and officials in the higher education system say they don't get enough funding from the state. Arizona students' completion rate of the Free Application for Federal Student Student Aid is one of the worst in the nation, meaning students are leaving millions of dollars in free money on the table.
No time. Especially for adults who don't get degrees right after high school, time plays a role. If you have a family, taking time away from them to attend classes while working may not seem worth it.
Not prepared. Some Arizona high schools don't even offer the classes required for college entry. For first-generation college students, there's a lack of familial knowledge on how to navigate the system. At schools with high student-to-counselor ratios, students may not get enough access to information to understand their options.
Amber Crase graduated from Mesa High School in 2009 and went right into classes at Mesa Community College. She left after two semesters, unable to get the same amount of financial aid for her second year of college. She couldn’t afford to stay.
Money to pay for college and an understanding of how to navigate the major life changes college brings stood in her way. She didn’t feel prepared for what came after high school graduation.
“My high school did not prepare me for kind of anything after high school,” Crase said. “I wasn’t the best student, so I feel like it was kind of just giving up, just succeed and don’t die.”
Crase, 28, wishes she would have instead taken specialized training that focused on administrative skills like Excel and Quickbooks. She works in billing and administration for Konica Minolta in a job that fits her interest in detail-oriented tasks. She’s worked her way up in the company and still has room for growth.
“I make more money than a lot of my friends that got degrees. I feel bad about that, but I struggled for a decade to get to where I am. We both made our choices,” Crase said.
Five young people give us insight into their career decisions after high school
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Arizona's past plays a big role
Whatever the reason people aren't advancing to some kind of training after high school, education advocates worry it could have broad consequences.
Falling behind other states isn't some kind of popularity contest or missed opportunity for bragging rights.
And an undereducated population doesn't just affect those without some kind of training or degree; it hurts a state's economy.
Several key factors hold Arizona back.
The state has an underfunded education system from preschool to university compared to other states. That lack of funding plays into an ongoing teacher shortage and the country's highest student-to-counselor ratio, which both affect students' understanding of and access to opportunities after high school.
Arizona's historical job trends haven't made higher education or specialized training a requirement.
The higher education landscape in Arizona is underdeveloped, with few colleges, most of which are quite large. There are only three public universities, one large private university, several small private colleges and public community colleges throughout the state. States with much lower populations than Arizona boast many more college options.
Funding for colleges has faced strong opposition from some state lawmakers. Arizona also has a higher-than-average poverty rate and a large crop of students who would be the first in their family to attend college, both significant barriers to progressing beyond a high school diploma.
Ducey believes the state will reach its 60% goal.
"I actually think the goal should be higher," he said. "But I think to go from where we are today to 60 (percent) shows a dramatic improvement and trend. It also helps us change the culture of the state."
Arizona showcases the extremes in education: The state has some of the country’s best high schools and some high schools that send almost no one to college. More than 140 of the state's public high schools sent less than half of their students immediately on to postsecondary education in 2017, according to Arizona Department of Education data analyzed by the Arizona Board of Regents.
"It’s nobody’s fault," ASU's Crow said.
"It’s not like there’s some evil force at work here. This was a very successful place based on its historic economy, lots of people moving here, so the economy boomed from people coming here. OK, well now, they’re here. Now, what do you do? You can’t continue to evolve the economy just on people coming here."
Ducey said his administration has focused on improving career and technical education programs that help students train for jobs that don't require a university degree.
He believes too much emphasis has been put on university degrees over other forms of training in recent years.
"It's not just a four-year college as your only option," he said.
There's also a growing partisan divide on how college is viewed, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. While most Americans saw a degree as valuable, they viewed certain aspects of college, like the cost of tuition and political views in the classroom, with suspicion, depending on their political leanings.
The view that universities are having a negative effect on the nation has increased 12 percentage points since 2012, largely among those who lean Republican.
'They don't know where to go'
Improving training and education after high school isn't just about traditional college paths. It involves ramping up programs that can directly lead to jobs, often in a shorter time frame than it takes to earn a bachelor's degree.
Mike Brewer, the owner of a local plumbing company, finds it hard to recruit new workers.
“The challenge is that the education department has done a fabulous job of touting the need for college education,” Brewer said. “It’s a marketing campaign and the public has bought into it.”
Brewer isn't alone. There's a shortage of skilled workers in Arizona that has left companies without applicants to fill jobs that often pay relatively well and don't come with the student debt associated with college degrees.
A recent example of why the shortage matters: A new hotel had to delay its opening date because of the shortage of electricians in the Valley.
These jobs often require some kind of additional training after high school, which can take the form of paid training offered by the employer, as is the case for Brewer.
Despite the benefits, there's a stigma about jobs like the ones Brewer offers. Days can be long, hot and really physical. In a state like Arizona, installing plumbing into new construction means hours outside in punishing heat. It's hard work. It's possible people can't do it their whole lives.
In a state hit hard by the Great Recession, some may worry about the volatility of construction jobs. Arizona lost the most construction jobs after the housing market crashed.
Now, 82% of Arizona contractors reported they had a hard time filling jobs, higher than the national average, according to a 2018 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America.
Brewer is on a constant campaign to convince people that plumbing is good work: You can make decent money, support your family, maybe even own your own business.
Students talk about their college experience
It can be hot and dirty work — he’s clear about that. But it also can mean a 24-year-old with no college debt making $70,000 a year, he said. More people should know they have such an opportunity.
“No one aspires to — not to put anybody down — to flip burgers the rest of their life,” he said. “They just don’t know anything else. They don’t know where to go find these jobs.”
Brewer pays people $15 an hour to get trained, then he hires them to work as plumbers. His training program, which lasts several months, isn’t accredited, so his workers don’t receive a certificate that would transfer to another company or across state lines.
His workers also aren’t counted as having a credential under Achieve60AZ’s goal, but he’s working to change that. He’s in the process of getting his training program accredited. He wants his employees to be able to move, and he supports the goal to improve attainment overall.
“A community that’s over 60% is a thriving community with opportunities for people that live there and a robust economy,” Brewer said.
Hunter Carpenter trained through Brewer’s program and now works as a plumber. The 19-year-old graduated from Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale last year and bounced around restaurant jobs.
He went to Glendale Community College for a semester but couldn’t afford to continue. He needed to help his dad with bills.
Now, he’s making as much as $1,000 a week, much more than his friends. He gets to work with his hands and feels satisfaction seeing a completed job at the end of the day.
“Everyone in my family is actually very proud … that I chose this route to succeed in life and not bum around and jump around a lot,” Carpenter said.
He would love to have a certification, though, in case he wants to move. He doesn’t think he’ll go back to college unless he has to learn something specific for a position or physically can’t do plumbing anymore.
“My plan is to continue doing plumbing and learn as much as I can. … Maybe one day I can open up a business.”
What kept these students out
For every Arizona high school graduate who doesn't go to college or get a certificate, there's a story. And while none is the same, common factors tie them together.
Many have tried to go to college at least once.
John Romero, 31, went to college multiple times in the years since he graduated from high school in 2005. He was offered a scholarship and grants to ASU at age 16 and was the first in his family to attend a university.
But during his first semester, he had to medically withdraw from school because of declining health from undiagnosed Type 1 diabetes.
He jumped through some hoops to return the next year, but then dropped out to pursue music. He never really wanted to go to college, he said.
For many years, he worked odd jobs and toured with his band. Now, with overtime pay, he pulls in north of $60,000 as a machinist at Honeywell.
A few years ago, after starting at Honeywell, he earned an associate's degree in what he hoped would be a pathway to a bachelor's in aerospace engineering. He recently gave up on that idea; poor grades from more than a decade ago affected his ability to get financial aid at ASU.
"It was expensive when I was 17 and it's even more expensive now that I’m (in my 30s), and it just doesn’t seem worth the hassle anymore," Romero said.
While his parents were "extremely disappointed" he dropped out, they know he's going to be OK, he said. He has friends with advanced degrees who work menial jobs making much less money than he does, he said.
"Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. I feel like I got lucky," he said.
Despite the hassles Romero experienced with attempting college, he doesn't tell people not to go. When he talks to his nephew or his friends' kids, he encourages them to take advantage of any opportunities that come their way.
"Don't take it for granted. Because you're not always going to get the opportunity to have a full scholarship. But I also tell people to pursue what they really want to do," Romero said.
FAFSA: Here's what students should know
Nicole Schaub, The Republic | azcentral.com
How are other states handling this?
Arizona isn't alone in recognizing its education level doesn't match the needs of its economy. Many states have set goals to increase attainment, and some have put programs and policies in place to reach them.
Louisiana has historically had one of the nation's lowest college graduation rates, lower than Arizona's.
But the state now makes all high school students complete the FAFSA before graduation or actively opt-out. Texas and Illinois have followed, instituting FAFSA requirements of their own. Graduation standards also now must align with state college entry requirements. Arizona doesn't do either.
Louisiana now leads the nation in its rate of FAFSA completion. The state reached an all-time high for the number of high school graduates enrolling in college, and it has seen its number increase for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
It remains to be seen whether the rates of college completion will meaningfully increase because of the policies, said John White, Louisiana's state superintendent of education. The state still lags Arizona by most education measures.
"We have a long, long way to go," White said.
Some states have much higher goals or shorter timelines for improvement. In Colorado, for instance, there's a 66% goal for postsecondary degrees and credentials by 2025, which is both higher and faster than Arizona. That state's department of higher education put together a master plan on how to achieve the goal, something that has not happened here.
Colorado already has one of the country's highest levels of educational attainment.
It wasn't always this way
Arizona once exceeded the national average on college success, though that version of Arizona bears little resemblance to the state today.
In 1940, Arizona ranked fourth in the nation for college completion, according to a 2013 report by an economic researcher at the University of Arizona. Since then, the state has "gradually lost ground to the nation."
The report pointed to the state's massive population boom, including the growth of the Latino population, which historically has had lower attainment rates, and below-average attainment growth for white people as potential reasons for Arizona's lag.
Fifty years later, in 1990, Arizona still was above average, according to a paper by Arizona State University's Productivity and Prosperity Project. By 2000, Arizona was in the middle of the pack and losing ground as other states ramped up their attainment at faster rates.
Now, Arizona is below the national average.
Depending on how its counted, the state falls somewhere in the bottom 20 states. According to one compilation by the Arizona Board of Regents of state and federal data for degrees, certificates and licenses, Arizona ranks 39th.
Numbers stark for students of color
Arizona's college enrollment rate significantly lags the national average. Nearly 53% of high school graduates here started a two- or four-year degree right away, compared with nearly 70% nationally. The enrollment rate has not changed much since 2013, according to Achieve60AZ.
While more than 50% of high school graduates enter a community college or a university, only about 27% actually complete their degrees within six years.
When you break down the numbers for specific groups, the picture becomes more concerning.
Students of color lag white students, a troubling trend given Arizona's growing number of Latino students in the K-12 system. A few factors make higher education access more difficult for Latino students, including an increased likelihood of poverty and a high number of first-generation students whose parents have not gone to college and don't have first-hand knowledge of how to navigate the complexities.
In Arizona, 11% of Latinos have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 35% of white people and 24% of black people, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Georgetown analyzed 10 states on Latino attainment, and Latinos in Arizona were the least represented at four-year colleges.
Rita Valenzuela, a 20-year-old University of Arizona student who’s the first in her family to go to college, didn’t have all the knowledge she needed when she was considering her next step.
Valenzuela had a 3.8 GPA and decent test scores in high school but was planning to attend Pima Community College because she thought that was all she could qualify for with her grades and scores.
“I knew nothing about getting to college. I didn’t know what FAFSA was, actually,” she said.
A mentor stepped in to say she had more options. Valenzuela now wants to help her peers and has a job as an adviser helping high school students find what colleges fit them.
This summer, she came to a College Depot event at the Phoenix Public Library, where other students and their parents sought information on how to get to and through college. She’s always loved academics and learning. She wants to go either to business school or law school.
“My mom would always tell me to do good in school so I can get out of poverty, so I always strived for that. … I wanted to just break that curse of not going to college. They didn’t finish high school actually,” she said of her parents.
The gap in educational attainment for students of color is not the result of less ambition or interest in college.
A strong majority of Latino students surveyed for a report by the Helios Education Foundation said they were likely to attend college, much higher than the number who end up enrolling, the report noted.
Their aspirations were higher than their opportunities, it appeared.
And like the rest of the country, Arizona faces a gap for young men. Women now outpace men on enrollment in college. Less than one-fourth of young men in Arizona has a bachelor’s degree, compared with 30% nationally for young men and 39% nationally for young women, according to the state demographer.
There are about 1 million adults in Arizona who have taken some college courses but not received a degree. People in this group may have taken out loans in the process. They don't have the benefits of a degree, but they may have the debt.
What is Arizona going to do about it?
The education, business and philanthropic communities came up with the 60% goal, backed by the governor, but Arizona so far has lacked the leadership needed to actually achieve it.
The state as a whole, including the Board of Regents, governor and other elected officials, has not set specific steps to achieve the goal or outlined policies that have worked in other states or on smaller scales in Arizona.
More and more states have instituted "promise" programs that provide funding for community college or university if students meet certain academic and financial parameters. Arizona has no such program.
In addition to addressing financial barriers to college, advocates for promise programs say there's a psychological benefit to promising its students access if they work hard.
Crase, the Mesa High School graduate who stopped community college after one year, doesn’t regret not getting a degree, but still would like one someday, if it works out. She thinks people should know their end goal before going on to higher education, especially when there are jobs in construction and call centers available to people without degrees now.
She would love to work in nonprofit management, maybe doing the books for a cause she supports.
She thinks she would already have a degree if she hadn't run into barriers the first time around.
“In a dream world, if I had the money and a little bit more of the support, I would have definitely gone to college. That would have been a lot more helpful in my life,” she said.
Reach reporter Rachel Leingang by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 602-444-8157, or find her on Twitter and Facebook.
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