After a decade of progress increasing postsecondary enrollment, Arizona is suddenly headed in the wrong direction. Less than half of recent high school graduates enroll in some form of training or higher education within 12 months of graduation. 

As recently as six years ago, Arizona was making progress, but the number fell precipitously in 2020 and 2021, dropping below 50 percent for the first time since 2010. Even before the pandemic, five-year trends of postsecondary enrollment were flat or declining for high school graduates. 

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Going to a postsecondary institution within a year of high school graduation is a key indicator that students will earn a degree or certificate that will advance their career and contribute to the state’s economic growth. 

If Arizona does not create a culture of increasing education after high school, we will never meet the Achieve60AZ goal of ensuring that 60 percent of Arizonans have a college degree or certificate by 2030. That statewide goal was created in part to support Arizona’s workforce and economy. To meet the goal, now just seven years away, we need 500,000 more adults to earn a postsecondary degree or certificate. 

Rich Nickel is President and CEO of Education Forward Arizona, which advocates for and acts on education improvements that advance the quality of life for all Arizonans.

The risk is real. If Arizona does not have an ample educated workforce, businesses will locate in other states where more adults have certificates, degrees, and other credentials earned after high school. 

Several states are far ahead of Arizona. Top states send 70 percent of high school graduates directly into postsecondary education and training, which is the agreed-upon goal for post-high school enrollment in the Arizona Education Progress Meter. New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and California, send 58 percent or more students to higher education. 

While Arizona’s economic and population growth has outpaced these neighboring states, efforts to prepare future generations are unlikely to sustain that growth. It’s especially concerning that students from racially and ethnically diverse populations have both the lowest enrollment rates in college and the sharpest declines in training program sign-ups. 

Only 41.3 percent of Hispanic graduates enroll in postsecondary education, but comprise more than half of Arizona’s K-12 population. This trend cannot continue if we are to build a future educated workforce.

Earlier this year, Education Forward Arizona and Helios Education Foundation released groundbreaking research that suggests if we increase postsecondary education enrollment by 20 percent, Arizona stands to benefit from more than $5 billion in annual gains attributable to factors like higher lifetime earnings, improved health, and increased workforce activities.

The converse is also true: When high school graduates don’t enroll in college or training programs, they often take the types of jobs that will be the first to be automated, they don’t reap the financial benefits for themselves, and consequently, they are less likely to contribute to the state’s economic health or to live healthy lives. All of Arizona suffers.

The solution is to invest in programs and services that build an ecosystem oriented toward post-high school learning. There are actions we can take, right now, to get back on track. 

One of the most effective strategies is dual enrollment programs, where students enroll in college classes while still in high school. Research documents that dual enrollment students are more likely to attend college, have a higher postsecondary grade point average, and complete a degree program. 

The Arizona legislature has allocated $15.5 million to expand dual enrollment that will prioritize low-income students least likely to have access to this game-changing opportunity to build their confidence that they have what it takes to succeed in college. 

As important as strategies like dual enrollment are, the truth is we can no longer afford to consider our state’s attainment crisis to be just an education issue. It’s bigger than that. It is about creating a strong economy, a workforce with 21st Century skills, a vibrant social fabric, and the physical health of our citizens. 

Arizona’s business and postsecondary education communities must come together to create a statewide commitment to increasing education and training beyond high school. Over the coming months, Education Forward Arizona will be working with the business and education communities to identify priority strategies to increase participation in postsecondary programs. 

We all stand to gain by doing so. Students and their families will reap the rewards of higher lifetime

earnings. And when they do, they will contribute to a more prosperous economy that all

Arizonans will enjoy.

Author: Rich Nickel is President and CEO of Education Forward Arizona, which advocates for and acts on education improvements that advance the quality of life for all Arizonans.