Higher Education

OPINION: Changing the ‘narrow and sometimes elitist image of higher education’

Let’s build a college-going culture that includes options for every student

Arizona State University, whose president says it has become a model of how higher education can solve many of its problems.

Arizona State University is striving to become a model of how higher education can solve many of its own problems.

The enduring popular concept of what it means to go to college sends young people the message that they’re not “college material” if they’re not interested in, or able to attend, a four-year college or university.

To counter this narrow and sometimes elitist image of higher education, we must build a college-going culture in our communities that is inclusive and that promotes higher education in its many forms as a desirable and attainable goal for all young people. We as a society — and especially those of us in the education community— must do everything we can to achieve this goal.

Too few high school students and families are aware of the many higher-education pathways available to them and the resources in place to support them.

We need to do a better job of illuminating and celebrating these options, including earning an associate degree at a community college, attending a technical institution, studying at a trade school, completing job training and participating in apprenticeships.

It is also essential to consider the ways in which the importance of higher education extends beyond individuals and what they value.

Getting more Americans to earn some kind of postsecondary credential is an important goal for states across the country.

In Arizona, we know that within the next three years nearly 70 percent of all jobs will require at least some education beyond high school.

Unfortunately, there is little to no state funding in Arizona that encourages low-income students to seek higher-education opportunities.

Arizona should make this type of funding available. It would almost certainly raise awareness of higher-education options and facilitate greater access to more young people.

The business and education communities have formed a coalition, Achieve60AZ, to bolster partnerships and catalyze collaborative initiatives to boost the attainment rate and align education with Arizona’s economic opportunities, but these efforts are not yet being matched by statehouse support.

For the third year in a row, an Expect More Arizona poll shows that Arizonans consider education to be the number one issue in the state. Clearly, these opportunities are high priorities.

As the array of higher-education options available to young people seeking to prepare for future careers continues to diversify and expand in Arizona — a trend my organization follows closely and encourages — it is essential to raise awareness and knowledge about the value of higher education in all of its various forms, especially among low-income and first-generation students.

Obtaining a degree beyond a high school diploma makes a huge difference in a person’s earning potential and lifetime wages. States that don’t create an environment that fosters higher education are likely to lose out on economic opportunities.

Skilled workers will relocate to find high-paying, in-demand jobs, taking with them their economic power. There’s also the social loss associated with not getting students on paths to success, including a heavier strain on local and state resources such as law enforcement, healthcare and social services.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, well-paying, skilled-services jobs for workers with education beyond high school have increased by four million since 1991. Whether it’s a bachelor’s degree, an IT credential or a technical certification, formal education beyond high school is the key to expanding opportunities for individuals while strengthening our state (and country) at the same time.

Although there will continue to be job opportunities for people who have foregone higher education, there are significantly more — and wider — pathways for individuals who have formal training or education beyond high school.

Supporting a broad-based college-going culture that champions the diverse pathways to higher education is an investment in the future of our state and our country.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Rich Nickel is the president and CEO of College Success Arizona, where he leads the organization toward its goal of assisting all Arizonans in gaining access to, and successfully attaining, a postsecondary credential.  

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