'This is a Wake-Up Call': Rate of Arizona Students Who Go To College Drops Significantly
This article originally appeared on AZCentral on December 14, 2021.
'This is a wake-up call': Rate of Arizona students who go to college drops significantly
Students walk by the clock tower at Mesa Community College.
College-going rates in Arizona have trailed national averages for several years, and the pandemic has worsened the trend in the state.
Less than half of Arizona high school graduates went on to college last year, the lowest percentage in at least a decade, putting the state further behind on an ambitious education goal.
If patterns continue, more than 75% of current ninth graders will have only a high school diploma or less six years after their class graduates, according to a recent analysis from the Arizona Board of Regents, the governing board for the state’s three public universities.
That poses a significant concern for the state’s economic future, which is expected to demand more educated workers.
The Arizona Republic in 2019 published a series of articles on Arizona’s challenges with what is known in education circles as "postsecondary attainment," or degree and certificate completion after high school, and roadblocks students face in going to college, ranging from money and time to guidance and preparation. Those challenges persist and were only exacerbated by the pandemic.
The statewide goal of having 60% of adults with any postsecondary certificate or degree by 2030 is slipping further away (Arizona is at 46%, compared with 45% in 2019), but advocates remain committed and the public universities are redoubling their efforts to bring in new students.
A new "promise program," for example, is providing guaranteed scholarships for low-income Arizona students to attend a state public university as part of efforts to bridge the worsening higher education attainment gap.
Paul Luna, president and CEO of Helios Education Foundation, said the new data raises questions about what further efforts are needed to expand post-high school education.
“We as a state need to fully embrace data like this. Whether (or not) it’s exactly what we would want it to be, the reality is it grounds us in knowledge and understanding of where we’re at,” he said.
“This is a wake-up call somewhat, and hopefully a call to action.”
College-going dropped amid COVID-19
Last year, about 46% of Arizona’s 2020 public high school class enrolled in a two- or four-year college, down from about 53% in 2019 and compared with 66% nationally in 2019, per the Board of Regents' report.
That metric has dropped in Arizona for three years. Plus, many who enroll in a college program do not complete it.
“This board has long talked about the difficulties of improving postsecondary attainment in the state of Arizona, in that it lacks generally a college-going culture,” said George Raudenbush, a board analyst who presented the latest postsecondary attainment report at a November meeting.
Although Arizona in recent years has consistently trailed national higher education rates, as late as 1990, Arizona was above the average. But by 2000, it had dropped to the middle and began trailing as other states increased college attainment faster.
Last year, challenges were felt nationwide as well.
Nationally, college enrollment for 2020 high school graduates fell by “unprecedented levels” due to the “pandemic effect,” especially for high-poverty and low-income high schools, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse. Approximately 56% of 2020 high school graduates immediately enrolled in college, a drop from about 61% for the classes of 2019 and 2018, per another report from the organization.
Students pass through central campus at Northern Arizona University on the first day of snow on Oct. 12, 2021.
Luna from Helios said the pandemic didn’t necessarily create new barriers to Arizona’s college-going and degree completion challenges, but rather “shined a spotlight” in areas of most difficulty.
“What it reminds us is of the important work that we all have been doing and should be doing more, which is understanding what are really those barriers that are preventing more of our Arizona students from transitioning from high school into some type of postsecondary education environment,” he said.
Barriers include access to resources — not just money, but also information and support for families, communities and high schools — as well as challenges like the digital divide, low academic preparedness and lagging rates of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, he said.
Luna said the pandemic reminded education advocates of the key areas of focus to ultimately “really create equity in education — this idea that every student will have equal access to the opportunities to be successful in transitioning from high school to college.”
Rich Nickel, president and CEO of Education Forward Arizona, said Arizona had made progress enrolling Hispanic and Black students in higher education, for example, but that was halted during the pandemic, especially at the community college level.
“We’ve known all along that to get there (to 60%), we have to have this opportunity for low-income students, minority students, first-generation students, rural students … they had to participate at higher rates,” Nickel said.
The declines in college enrollment and completion over the past year unfortunately were not surprising, he said.
His group surveyed high school students and parents during the pandemic and asked about how prepared they felt to go to college. It became clear students were not getting the support they needed, ranging from in-person counseling to academic and socioemotional help, Nickel said.
And Arizona’s high school counselors — of which there are few to begin with — in many cases became so swamped with pandemic-driven issues that they couldn’t offer the same level of college guidance to students that they used to, he said.
“You could see this (college-going drop) coming just because of the change in preparation, in resources, in guidance, was so swift that there was almost no doubt that we would see declines,” he said.
Nickel said meeting the state’s 60% attainment goal will demand a continued commitment to addressing the barriers the education community has long known about but were exacerbated by the pandemic.
Unprepared for workforce needs
While Arizona’s 2020 drop is not an anomaly nationally, nor a surprise, it is a cause for concern given the state’s already low college-going levels.
Enrollment rates for Arizona high school graduates at two- or four-year colleges have remained relatively flat over 10 years, with drops in recent years and a notable decrease last year due to the pandemic. Over the last decade, enrollment rates at two-year and trade schools have dropped, and enrollment rates at four-year institutions have risen, but both remain relatively low.
Still, about 85% of Arizona public high schools fall below the national average for their four-year college enrollment rate, according to the Board of Regents.
The most recent college completion data is for the high school class of 2015, and about 27% of them completed some kind of postsecondary degree program within six years of finishing high school. Twenty-one percent of that class got a bachelor’s degree or higher, a decrease from the two years prior but still up slightly from about ten years earlier.
Students return to campus at the Arizona State University Tempe Campus, Aug. 14, 2021.
The report includes as postsecondary completion everything from certificates and credentials to associate's degrees and bachelor's degrees or higher.
The picture does not look great for current Arizona ninth-graders, according to the Board of Regents:
- 78% will have a high school diploma or lower.
- 2.2% will have a postsecondary certificate or credential.
- 3% will have an associate’s degree.
- 16.8% will have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
That could create a mismatch in the future workforce, which will demand educated and skilled workers. About 39% of the national workforce currently has a four-year degree or higher, compared with 34% of Arizona’s workforce, per the board.
That current national workforce education rate is more than double the four-year degree completion rate of Arizona students.
“This bodes very ill for a qualified workforce down the road, as people in their 50s, 60s, whatever, decide to retire, and that individuals much younger don’t have a college degree,” Regent Larry Penley said during a board meeting.
Resources cited as key issue
At a recent meeting, Arizona State University President Michael Crow told the board that the data to him means there’s “lots of work to do.”
The public universities continue to significantly improve state outcomes with the resources they have, both at the college level and by working to help improve high school outcomes, and they could do more with more resources, he said.
“(College) graduation rates are correlated with resources — period,” he said.
The Board of Regents is researching the reasons why people don’t go to college and educating students and families about college requirements and preparations. It’s also ramping up efforts to increase the number of Arizona high school students that fill out the FAFSA, a key step in getting financial aid for college.
Luna said national data has shown high school seniors that fill out a FAFSA are 84% more likely to enroll in postsecondary education. Arizona ranks among the states with the lowest FAFSA completion, making that a significant effort.
“That’s what I mean by access to resources,” Luna said, adding that some students don’t have enough support in helping fill out the form. “We can apply some learnings on how we can improve FAFSA completion and know that is going to have a direct effect on increasing our college-going rate of our students.”
About 46% of Arizona high school seniors completed a FAFSA for the 2019-2020 school year, compared with 56% nationally, according to state data. This school year 22% of seniors have completed the form so far, although there’s still time left.
But it’s not all bad news: Luna said a key step Arizona has already taken was to make postsecondary completion a state priority through the 60% attainment goal.
“That’s a meaningful goal, and it’s going to require continued engagement in programs that make a difference,” he said. “Part of it is creating a college-going culture across the entire state of Arizona, of almost demanding of ourselves and our state that we create equity in education, that we identify where there are barriers that we need to address.”
A significant barrier remains cost, and higher education groups are working on new ways to help make college more affordable.
Nickel and Luna’s group partnered on a scholarship program for students from the high school classes of 2020 or 2021 who haven’t yet enrolled in postsecondary education. The Helios Adelante Scholars Initiative gives students $1,000 each plus college guidance to get them started back in pursuing higher education.
The state universities’ new promise program also hopes to address the cost element and boost college-going for low-income students.
“I believe we as a state overall want to do better when it comes to student success, especially for our Arizona students that are coming through the Arizona education system,” Luna said.