Incoming Payson High School freshmen got a rousing greeting from teachers and administrators on Tuesday. PHS principal Kathe Ketchem was part of the program greeting the 150-strong freshmen class, which is the largest class at the high school.
The number of Payson High School graduates who head off to college has declined, mirroring a disturbing statewide trend.
Only 48 percent of graduates this year said they have enrolled in either two- or four-year post high school programs. That number stood at 62 percent last year and 56 percent the year before, according to figures released by Don Heizer, head guidance counselor at the high school.
Those findings mirror statewide figures showing a steady decline in the number of Arizona students who graduate from high school ready to start college.
Even so, Payson’s college attendance rate continues to lag behind the state average, which is dominated by schools in Maricopa County.
Some 67 percent of students graduating from schools in Maricopa County went on immediately to two- or four-year colleges, according to figures compiled by the Morrison Institute. That included 61 percent of the students attending in-state institutions and 6 percent who attended out-of-state colleges.
That report found little statewide improvement in the past five years in the percentage of students ready for college. Many students don’t take the necessary classes to get into any of the three state universities and many others don’t have high enough scores in math and English.
As college readiness has stagnated, the Payson district’s ability to figure out what has become of their students has also deteriorated.
“We used to get a report from the Arizona Board of Regents detailing enrollment and the various math and English courses (students) have taken,” said Heizer.
“I have not received that report for the last four years. I do not know if they no longer produce the report or if it doesn’t reach my desk any longer. The only information I have is from the students we have who complete an exit questionnaire at the end of their senior year.”
The 23 percent decline in the number of Payson High School students who say they’re going to college this year comes despite a heartening increase in the high school graduation rate. Payson high school’s graduation rate this year rose from a below-average 71 percent to an above average 82 percent.
However, the college attendance figures do mirror the high school’s continuing struggles to ensure all its students pass the AIMS test, which measures basic skills in math, reading, writing and science.
Educators said a variety of factors affect how many students head off to college besides test scores and academic preparation.
For instance, tuition at the three state universities has doubled in the past three or four years, as the Legislature has reduced state support. Moreover, the federal government has pulled back from a big expansion of its college grant and loan programs. Those two shifts have made college much less affordable for the average Arizona student in the past three years.
Tuition at the state’s university now stands at about $9,000 annually, in the top third of tuition for public universities nationally. Three years ago, Arizona’s universities had among the lowest tuition rates in the country.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that college graduates in 2008 earned an average of $61,000 annually, compared to $33,000 for those with just a high school diploma. People with a master’s degree earn an average of $71,000.
Moreover, the unemployment rate amongst people with a college degree now stands at about 5.4 percent compared to 15 percent among those with less than a high school diploma and 10 percent for those with just a high school degree.