ASU President: Rich or poor, Arizona students should have access to excellent education at all levels
When companies hire new workers, they want people who can handle the job. But they also want employees who are capable of growing and adapting when the market and society evolves, job requirements shift or new jobs emerge.
We are living at a time of rapidly accelerating change, fueled by advances in technology and the emergence of new markets that drive discoveries.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that young Baby Boomers had held an average of 11.9 jobs between the ages of 18 and 50, with more than a quarter of them holding 15 or more jobs. Another survey estimated that in the future Americans may have as many as seven different careers in their lifetimes and possibly dozens of jobs.
Not only does this dynamic demand agility from the workforce, it also necessitates that our social and economic systems are smartly designed to feed the pipeline with capable talent. By 2020, the U.S is estimated to face a shortage of five million workersarmed with the necessary post-high school education, be it technical, community college or university.
Recognizing this need for adaptation, it’s never been more important that we create the opportunity — at high speed — for the widest possible population to pursue technical, associate and bachelor’s degrees. This strengthens their lifelong capacity to learn and navigate an increasingly complex global economy.
Career readiness starts way before college
Adjusting to this reality does not start with higher education, of course. The path begins in the earliest years, underscoring the need for comprehensive thinking, planning and funding that can take Arizonans from pre-school all the way to life and career success.
With profound advances emerging in how we learn — particularly in the digitally enhanced online world in combination with the traditional classroom — decision-makers should recognize the new possibilities this creates for students and the need for teacher training to drive student achievement. This means devoting sufficient resources to ensure educators are prepared for the challenge.
To be clear, educational attainment is the single most powerful predictor of social and economic mobility in American society. A lack of education is likely to keep an individual stuck in roles where higher wages are difficult to attain. A lack of education increases the prospects for everything from joblessness, divorce and drug use to poor health, incarceration and a shortened lifespan.
Drawing on U.S. Census Bureau data, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce notes that over a 40-year career, workers with a four-year college degree will earn about $1 million more than those with only a high school diploma. That represents a 74 percent higher level of lifetime earnings.
Moreover, not only are poverty rates for Americans 25 years or older with no college education triple those with at least a bachelor’s degree, two out of every three available positions by 2020 are estimated to require some kind of post-high school certificate, with many requiring at least a bachelor’s degree.
Arizona needs better early education
Addressing this depends on a collaborative, all-hands-on-deck approach that should include full-day kindergarten, along with great early childhood preparation and nutrition.
That early start is critical to setting them on a productive path: Third-graders who do not read proficiently not only struggle in later grades, they are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than proficient readers. This hits children from low-income and minority families (black, Hispanic and American Indian) especially hard; nearly half will read below the basic level by the time they reach fourth grade.
The data from Arizona schools underscores the challenges we face: Only 21 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are in quality learning settings. Only 44 percent of third graders are at least proficient readers. Only 36 percent of eighth graders are prepared to be successful in high school math. And only 80 percent of high school students graduate in four years.
There is still a great deal of work to be done that includes raising expectations and working diligently to improve these metrics. Throughout the K-12 system and beyond, we can benefit from advances such as personalized learning pathways and new digital technologies that enhance the teacher’s role. This effort must also include improving cooperation at every level and promoting a career development and college-going culture throughout Arizona’s schools.
Why equal access is so important
The challenges that Arizona faces are also reflected in the national picture. Only 15 percent of the lower half of the US population (based on family income) are likely to get a college degree. Among the bottom quartile, the number is less than 10 percent. This is unacceptable.
Talent and ability are not determined by ZIP code or family income, nor are those with greater wealth more intrinsically equipped to learn and advance. It is our obligation — morally and for the social and economic benefit of our society — to create the conditions that allow talent to flourish among our entire population.
This is one of the core missions of Arizona State. And even though we take pride that ASU’s student body today mirrors the socioeconomic and ethnic diversity of the Arizona population, including more than 20,000 first-generation undergraduate college students, we are determined to expand those numbers. We are laser-focused on increasing access for qualified students and improving completion rates.
This does not begin when they are admitted. We work with schools at every level in order to enhance their ability to graduate capable high school students. Ultimately, society suffers if there are strong socioeconomic differences between elementary-grade students who are proficient readers and those who never gain the necessary skills to earn a high-school diploma, prosper in post-secondary education and obtain solid employment.
The connection between educational attainment and economic health should also motivate our state’s leaders to invest in this effort. More educated workers leads to higher wages, an expanded tax base, more business formation, increased capital investment to match worker skills and greater appeal to relocating enterprises. That’s a powerful combination that begins at home and depends on a lifelong commitment to learning.