Raising the Bar for College Access and Completion in Arizona – and Nationally

Author: Linda Jensen, Director, Arizona College Access Network

October 28, 2015

Anthony is beginning his senior year of high school in a rural community in eastern Arizona. Over the past three years, he worked with his GEAR UP coach and school counselor to plan a rigorous academic course load, including an AVID elective. On Saturdays, he volunteers at the food bank with his youth leadership team. And lately, he’s been dropping by the college access center in the public library to search for scholarships, knowing money will be tight if he’s accepted into his top choice college.

Clearly, Anthony is doing all the right things, as he plans for a postsecondary education.  But even if he is able to attend college and graduate, he will fall within the minority of Arizona’s adults. 

According to Lumina’s A Stronger Nation, only 36.9% of Arizona’s adults ages 25-64 have a college degree, putting the state below the national average of 40%. This lack of college attainment positions Arizona to fall further behind in the knowledge economy. What’s more, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that by 2018, 63% of U.S. jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. We simply can’t afford to have a high school diploma become the terminal degree for our students.

But preparing students for success after high school is a herculean task. In addition to the efforts of students and their families, the college access field comprises legions of people and programs working together to ensure that our students have the knowledge, skills, and tenacity to make a postsecondary plan, and see that plan through to completion. Some programs are comprehensive, some narrow in their area of expertise. Although the network of support is extensive, our data demonstrate that there is much more to be done.

The challenge in increasing access is enhancing our ability to coordinate and collaborate for the benefit of students. Unfortunately, we often duplicate services, miss important elements of preparation, and provide conflicting messages to students. Sometimes we struggle to communicate, because we don’t speak the same college access language.  And if we’re not speaking the same language, imagine the confusion we create among students and their families! 
We can and must do better. In disaggregating our postsecondary enrollment and completion data, we find subgroups of students who are not achieving at the same rates as others. For example, though 30% of Arizona’s population is Hispanic, only 17% of this population has at least a two-year degree, compared to 45% of whites. This loss of human capital and potential is a tragedy – and a clear call for greater equity in our support systems. How do we ensure that all students have what they need to succeed beyond high school, and how are we as a community holding ourselves responsible for their success? 

In Arizona we asked these big questions, and took the bold step of developing College Access Standards.  The standards create a framework and common language for the college access field. They provide the roadmap for students to develop the knowledge and behaviors necessary to succeed beyond high school. We use this framework to ensure that our students master every standard, from building career aspirations to creating support systems to developing financial literacy.
College access programs do not need to hit every standard, and the standards are not prescriptive. Rather, they provide a structure for determining what your organization or program does well, why you do what you do, and how you know whether you are succeeding. Our standards toolkit includes an assessment to ascertain your current level of programming, questions for guided discussion, and templates for planning your next actions. The process is built on the premise that you and your colleagues are the best evaluators of your work, and you determine your best fit within the college access continuum.

The power of a community – specifically a college access community – comes from members understanding their individual roles in achieving a collective goal. College Access Standards are the vehicle that invites thoughtful discussion and deliberate action, with the intent of raising the bar in postsecondary completion for all of Arizona’s students.

Category: College and Career Readiness

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