College move-in day is an exciting time for students and their parents. This month, just over half of all Arizona high school graduates are off to college. That’s great news for them and for Arizona, as college graduates are more likely to enjoy a lifetime of higher earnings and lower unemployment, among other benefits.
But what about the other half of high school students who are not college-bound? It’s easy to assume they are headed directly to work. Most are, but their path to success isn’t quite as clear, even in an expanding economy and tight labor market like Phoenix.
The majority of jobs available to working-age adults now require some education or credentials beyond high school. This workforce shift means millions of young adults in America are not working, nor are they attending school, including an estimated 22 percent in Phoenix. Collectively, they are often referred to as “disconnected” young adults.
The disconnect impacts minority students at higher rates, as they are more likely to live in poverty and lack the preparation and finances for college. Sadly, poverty is not an anomaly in Arizona schools: one in five Arizona children under 18 lives in poverty and 30 percent of children live in households where parents do not have secure employment. The numbers are much higher in Phoenix.
Take Phoenix Union, for example, Arizona’s largest and oldest high school district. Once segregated, Phoenix Union today is a majority-minority school district. Over 100 languages are spoken and 80 percent of its students are Hispanic. Family incomes are lower than average, so nearly 80 percent of all students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Family income is a significant predictor of success in school which, in turn, generally determines lifetime employment opportunities and earnings. With nearly 30,000 students in Phoenix Union and another 135,000 students in their partner K-8 elementary districts alone, it’s easy to see how the economic future of Phoenix and Arizona is closely tied to the success of the K-12 system.
In response, Phoenix Union, like other high schools, has taken steps to revamp its offerings to confront the challenges of poverty and increase the preparation of its graduates, such as expanding career and technical (CTE) courses. Specialty schools like the Phoenix Coding Academy and Franklin Police & Fire High School, and the new Academies at South Mountain, prepare graduates with relevant work skills the day they earn their diploma.
More must be done. We see an opportunity for Arizona to lead as demographics and the job market shift. We must find new ways to increase student success by:
- Creating new pathways for students to meet high school graduation requirements, such as apprenticeships and technical training, work and life skills, not just college prep academic coursework.
- Expanding dual enrollment programs and reducing barriers so students can enroll in community college workforce training during high school and receive a certificate along with a diploma.
- Changing state funding formulas to recognize the additional costs of educating students in poverty and reward schools for delivering high quality programs that prepare students for the workforce.
- Making state financial aid more available. Right now, only students bound for state universities qualify for state financial aid. That pool should be expanded to include education and training at community colleges and technical schools.
- Overhauling GED programs so the thousands of adults who did not graduate high school can earn a diploma and skills that will lead to work.
In the coming weeks, we are inviting leaders of business, education and philanthropy to learn more about the changing demographics of Arizona and explore how we can work together to improve opportunity for all high school graduates, no matter their life path.
Arizona has made great strides in improving its schools and outcomes for students, especially those who are setting out for college. It’s now time to shore up opportunities for the rest to ensure their future is just as bright.
Dr. Chad Gestson is superintendent of Phoenix Union, Dr. Maria Harper-Marinick is chancellor of the Maricopa County Community College District, Chris Camacho is president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, Eileen Klein is former state treasurer and president emerita, Arizona Board of Regents.