Arizona 20% College Completion Rate Alarms State Officials

By Anne Ryman, The Arizona Republic
 Four of five Arizona high-school graduates do not have a college degree six years after graduating from high school, and just over half haven’t gone to college at all, a new report reveals.

The study by the Arizona Board of Regents suggests that the state needs to increase its efforts in K-12 to get more students into college and that colleges need to increase their graduation rates. Studies have shown that college degrees are increasingly required in the workforce and that workers with degrees earn more money over a lifetime than those without.

The report provides a glimpse for the first time of what happens to Arizona high-school students after they graduate, even if they move or attend college out of state. Using federal and state data from colleges nationwide, the regents tracked several classes of high-school graduates in Arizona, beginning with 49,277 graduates in the 2003-04 school year. As of September, only 20 percent had graduated with a certificate or college degree.

Fifty-three percent had never gone to college, and 27 percent took college courses but hadn’t graduated. The Class of 2004-05 fared about the same five years after graduation. The study, called the Arizona Student Pipeline Report, can’t be compared nationally because only a handful of states tracks high-school graduates in this much detail.

Officials say several factors are contributing to the low percentages. High schools need to do a better job preparing students for college, and community colleges and universities need to focus more on helping students finish their degrees.

Some officials hope that changes made in recent years, such as increasing math and science requirements in high school and adding advisers and other support in the freshman year, will pave the way for improved college attendance and completion.

If the picture doesn’t brighten, Arizona “will not be able to compete with other states or internationally because we simply will not have the workforce we need,” said John Haeger, president of Northern Arizona University.

The findings in the report echo other studies that have led to calls for reforming the state’s education system.

For years, Arizona has lagged the national average in the percentage of people with college degrees. In the state, 25.3 percent of adults 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 27.5 percent nationally, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures.

The regents study, scheduled to be discussed today at their meeting in Tucson, could affect policy decisions for K-12, community-college and university systems.

Regent Ernest Calderon, who commissioned the report when he was regents president last year, said he was surprised that only one in five students obtained a certificate or degree six years later.

“What we are saying is 80 percent of our youth, our future, is service industry. We’re destining people for a service industry,” he said.

He said he isn’t optimistic in the short term, given likely state budget cuts spurred by a sluggish economy. Somehow, despite the challenges, universities have to increase access to a college degree as well as the success rate, he said.

Challenges for K-12

Regent Vice Chairman Fred DuVal said the report needs a deeper examination to understand what is driving “leaks” in the student pipeline. For one thing, not enough students are considering college, he said.

Education experts agree that educators and parents need to stress more the importance of getting a degree so students will aspire to complete one.

Mesa resident Valerie Keim was able to finish two bachelor’s degrees in five years at Arizona State University by taking some courses for college credit while still in high school. A 2005 graduate of Dobson High School, she always knew she would be going to college.

“It wasn’t a question,” said the 23-year-old, who graduated in May.

Along with encouraging students, schools also must do a better job of preparing students for college, officials say.

Many students who graduate from Arizona high schools aren’t academically eligible to attend one of the three state universities. A 2006 regents study sampled 3,252 student academic records from 66 high schools and found that 52 percent of graduates lacked the grades or required courses to be admitted.

Math was one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Only about 40 percent met the four years of math required for university entry. Foreign language was another barrier, with only 42 percent meeting the two-unit requirement.

African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics had much lower eligibility rates than Whites. Students from rural areas had lower rates than those in Maricopa and Pima counties.

Experts are hopeful the percentages of eligible students will grow because of the state Board of Education’s approval of new graduation requirements a few years ago. Beginning with the freshman Class of 2009, students need four years of math to graduate from high school. They once needed only basic algebra and geometry to get a diploma. They also need a third year of science, up from two.

Colleges’ challenges

For those who attend college in Arizona, completion too often eludes them, said Tom Sugar, senior vice president for Complete College America, a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C., that works to boost graduation rates nationally.

The biggest problem, he said, is that colleges still cater to the traditional full-time student who lives on campus.

The schools give short shrift to growing numbers of students who attend part time and have families and jobs. Colleges need to offer more flexible class schedules, and it’s not enough to just add more online courses because not every student has high-speed Internet and a great computer, he said. “It’s opening your eyes and seeing the true nature of the modern American college student,” he said.

At the University of Arizona, there are various reasons students don’t graduate, said Richard Kroc, associate vice provost for institutional research.

Some have trouble with math and aren’t able to maintain the 2.0 grade-point average necessary to stay enrolled. Others leave for personal reasons. Kroc said the university is working on approaches to increase graduation rates, including programs that help students become more engaged in university life.

At ASU, officials have made several changes. They offer more tutoring and, in 2007, launched a Web-based program, e-adviser, that maps out the courses needed each semester for students to graduate. It also notifies an adviser if students get off-track.


One comment on “Arizona 20% College Completion Rate Alarms State Officials”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *