Why College Matters for Arizona

Author: Rich Nickel, President and CEO of College Success Arizona

October 7, 2014

This article was previously posted on Helios Education Foundation's blog. 

Today, more than ever, the most powerful instrument of economic mobility for Arizonans, particularly low-income residents, is a college degree.

Graduating with a four-year degree has economic and social benefits for individual students, their families, their communities and for the entire state. College graduates earn more over the course of their lifetimes. They benefit from lower unemployment rates. They offer skills needed by 21st century employers. An educated workforce strengthens Arizona’s economy, and higher-earning citizens contribute more to the state in taxes.

College Success Arizona is working to build public will for significant increases in college graduation rates across the state. In addition, we are providing needed financial and mentoring supports that help students get into college and persist through graduation.

Our efforts are aligned not only with the educational goals of the state but also with the state’s economic goals. By 2020, 64 percent of all jobs in Arizona will require a post-secondary certificate or degree. Yet today, only 35 percent of people in the state hold those credentials. Arizona CEOs will tell you that one of their top concerns is the lack of skilled labor and the inability to retain talent in the state. 

The upside to closing this skills gap is significant: Consider that the unemployment rate for a person with only a high school diploma is almost three times higher than that for a person who earns a bachelor’s degree. The average family income for those with only a high school diploma is only half of that for those who earn a bachelor’s degree. The data is clear: More degree holders mean a stronger Arizona economy.

If Arizona residents are more likely to be employed and receive higher paychecks, so too will the state’s tax receipts rise. We estimate that adding just 1,000 college graduates to the Arizona workforce will increase state tax revenue by more than $2.2 million every year.

In addition to these economic gains, we know that increasing the number of college graduates increases the number of Arizona residents who are healthier, have children who do better in school, vote more, volunteer and serve on civic boards more, and patronize the arts. All are important for Arizona. More highly educated citizens tend to be happier people (healthier, wealthier, socially, culturally, politically and civically involved). The trickle-down effect is that more people will want to stay in Arizona—now a better place to live. 

Over the coming months, look to College Success Arizona to frame several important conversations about what’s needed to increase college graduation rates in Arizona, including:

  • Promoting the benefits of creating more degree holders in the state. College Success Arizona is creating a number of discussions about how to achieve this outcome. Hundreds of programs and organizations are interested in this goal, and they are already doing some great work. How can we identify and replicate programs already working here or elsewhere to create more degree holders in Arizona?
  • Improved state-based financial aid. To see the significant increases in college graduation rates that we want, we have to talk about universal financial aid, especially for low-income students qualified to attend college. A majority of states have programs targeted at expanding access to college for low-income students. How can we build public will to for changes in state financial aid policy?
  • Ensuring college access and success for low income students, with an emphasis on Latino students. Arizona has set a goal of 60 percent college attainment. With the demographic shifts occurring in our state, that goal cannot be reached until we close the college graduation achievement gap between white students and their (now) minority counterparts. Other states with large Latino populations (such as California, Colorado, Florida and Texas) have made significant gains in expanding college access and success for Latinos. What more does Arizona need to do to ensure such opportunities?

Our greatest opportunity to move the college success needle lies among our most vulnerable groups: low-income, minority and rural students. College enrollment and graduation among these students is unacceptably low in Arizona.

College Success Arizona is committed to significantly increase college graduation rates in the state. We believe that the result will be better lives for the individuals who graduate and a better Arizona for all of us.

To learn more about our impact and our plans, visit

Rich Nickel is President and CEO of College Success Arizona.


Category: Postsecondary Success

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