A coalition of education and political leaders wants to improve higher education in Arizona, arguing the state’s poor performance has contributed to the United States’ declining economic power.
Too few of the state’s residents are earning college degrees to keep high-paying jobs here, according to the Coalition for Solutions Through Higher Education. The group cites statistics indicating more high school freshmen drop out than go to college.
While much of the U.S. is struggling to educate students as well as competing nations, Arizona, in particular, is failing, the coalition contends.
“China has more honors students than we have students. We can’t compete with the pipeline leaking as badly as it leaks all the way through,” said Fred DuVal, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents.
Only 64 percent of the state’s high school freshmen graduate within four years, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a higher education research firm. Eighteen percent of freshmen enroll at a university shortly after high school, and only half that number earns a bachelor’s degree within four years.
To change that, the coalition wants to increase “support” for the state’s universities and community colleges. However, the coalition has not specified what the institutions need to produce a more educated work force.
DuVal said it would require the universities to be accountable for the quality of their instruction, and for the Legislature to increase its spending on higher education.
The coalition hopes to accomplish such things by raising awareness of the problem. It is holding a series of meetings across the state and hopes to initiate legislative hearings on the issue early next year.
“If we can change the environment, we will change the policy outcomes,” DuVal said.
Arizona’s residents also must change, said Rep. Jennifer Burns, R-Tucson, chairwoman of the House higher education committee.
“It’s going to be a cultural change that people have to value education more than they do, where it’s something that everybody needs and is going to get,” Burns said, “whereas now, it’s not.”
Arizona State University and the University of Arizona have some of the nation’s lowest graduation rates, 56 percent and 59 percent, respectively. Both have improved in recent years.
But no matter how much attention university graduation rates draw, the state’s high school graduation rates threaten the economy.
“This one is a quiet crisis because those kids slowly sort of filter out of (the state’s high schools) every week, every month, every year,” DuVal said. “You know it’s happening, but there’s no big bang. There’s no big, sort of epiphany moment where you say, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got a serious problem here.’ ”
When speaking to business and education groups, Burns said she harks back to a time when the nation’s education system was challenged. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union’s Sputnik first orbited the Earth, beginning the Space Age — and showing how far behind the U.S. had fallen in science and technology.
“We didn’t just pay for 1,000 scientists to go build a rocket and send us to the moon,” Burns said. “We invested in education and technology throughout the entire country.
“We’re facing our Sputnik moment now.”