Arizona students are less likely to graduate high school and half as likely to finish college as students nationally — especially in rural schools.

The pandemic hasn’t helped — reducing both high school graduation rates, attendance rates at community colleges and completion rates at universities, according to the Arizona Board of Regents annual Educational Attainment Report.

High schools like Payson and others in rural Arizona have lower rates than the state average — which is propped up by district and charter schools in the Valley and Tucson whose students come from wealthy, well-educated families living in expensive suburbs.

Increasingly, the 48th worst-funded public school system in the nation is reinforcing class divides — preparing the children of the wealthy for college and the higher-income careers for which they’re the doorway — while leaving low-income and minority students in rural areas behind, the report concluded.

“Arizona is home to some of the nation’s top-performing high schools in which most students after graduation pursue a college or university degree,” reported the Board of Regents. “Yet, in most communities — especially rural, tribal and sections of the urban core — few students pursue a postsecondary education. Lack of educational attainment is a primary limiting factor not only on individual prosperity but also the economy of entire communities and Arizona as a whole.

Ironically, the state budget is currently stalled over a renewed effort by some Republicans to dramatically expand the state’s taxpayer financed private school voucher system, which provides an average of about $12,000 per student to spend on tuition at private schools.

In 2020, just 46.3% of Arizona high schools’ graduating students enrolled in a two-year or four-year college. In 2019, some 66% enrolled in a college program.

Moreover, most Arizona students who enroll in college never end up with a degree. Among the 2015 high school graduates, only 27% within six years actually finished a two- or four-year degree. That puts Arizona in the bottom 25% of states, in an economy where a college education remains the key to many high paying jobs and statewide economic development.

If current trends continue, by 2029 the state’s college completion rate will drop to just 17%, according to the Board of Regents’ report.

Community colleges were especially hard hit when it came to the pandemic enrollment decline. Those two-year colleges represent a traditional way for low-income students to get a college degree, since the tuition is much lower and students often live at home or work while attending.

“This is likely due to the pandemic as the overall rate of enrollment in higher education decreased across the country, however, Arizona’s college enrollment was not keeping pace with the rest of the country before the pandemic. The decrease in the rate of high school graduates enrolling in four-year institutions was much less than the decrease in enrollment at two-year institutions,” the report concluded.

The top-performing schools, when it comes to the percentage of students who attend college, account for just 9% of enrollment but 21% of college enrollees. Not one high school in Gila, Navajo or Apache counties landed in this elite, top 10% when it comes to college enrollment rates. Those rural school districts mostly have high percentages of low-income, Native American and Hispanic families, with much lower college completion rates than white, higher-income families.

The Board of Regents’ report did not include a breakdown of the college attendance rate for each high school in the state — but did list the top performing schools. The districts generally don’t maintain their own statistics on what happens to students after they graduate.

“Four-year college completion trends further highlight the differentiated performance among Arizona high school,” the report concluded. “For college completions, the top 10% of Arizona high schools educate 14% of Arizona high school graduates and produce 35% of the high school graduates who go on to complete a four-year degree.”

The situation is especially grim for Native American students, who remain a significant percentage of the students in rural Arizona. Only 8% complete a four-year college degree.

The schools in rural counties are also hobbled by relatively low high school graduation rates, according to data maintained on the Arizona Department of Education website, based on the annual auditor general reports.

High school graduation rates took a big hit nationally during the pandemic and have not yet recovered. Clearly, the high school dropout rate has fed into the low college attendance rate.

Payson

In Payson, only 83% of high school students graduate within four years, including 77% of the boys and 90% of the girls. Among low-income students, only 78% graduate. In one interesting anomaly, 87% of Hispanic students graduated compared to 83% of whites.

Payson Superintendent Linda Gibson this week reported that the district’s high school graduation rate appears to be making a modest comeback this year, with the full return to in-person classes. The graduation rate appears poised to rise 4%. That’s still below the national average, but a reversal of the decline in the past several years.

Payson students have one enormous advantage in the form of its dual enrollment partnership with Eastern Arizona College. The MHA Foundation pays the tuition cost if students enroll in community college classes, most of which are taught on the Payson High School campus. The program makes it possible for a student to earn a degree from a community college at a fraction of the cost of waiting until after graduation. Some 458 high school students have taken at least one college class through the program in the last six years. About a third have taken at least 13 credits and another third have taken more than 30 credits. Several have completed an A.A. degree.

But for many students — especially from low-income families — the soaring cost of a college education has put it increasingly out of reach.

President Joe Biden had made reducing high levels of student loan debt a priority, but the efforts stalled in a divided Congress. Biden had campaigned on a promise of canceling at least $10,000 of each of some 45 million students’ outstanding, federally secured debt, but even that appears doubtful. Some 12 million people would emerge from debt with $10,000 of debt forgiveness. President Biden is reportedly considering executive action to rescue the pledge — with the debt relief tied to income. Reportedly, the income threshold might be $150,000 per individual and $300,000 per couple, according to a report by National Public Radio.

Nationally, students owe about $1.75 trillion worth of student debt. That’s about $440 million more than Americans owe on all their vehicles.

Half of the students who graduated with a B.A. in 2020 graduated in debt — an average of $37,000 each. The average cost of tuition at private colleges has risen to $38,000 annually at private colleges and $11,000 annually for in-state residents. Arizona public universities in the past generation have gone from among the least expensive in the nation to the upper third — thanks to a decline in state support for universities and a rapid increase in tuition.

This has priced many students out of the college market.

A study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that adults with a bachelor’s degree earn $1.2 million more than the median worker with only a high school diploma. Things like age, field of study, occupation, gender and race also play a role — but education remains a big factor. For instance, people with a high school diploma earn an average of $1.6 million in their careers. People with a BA in engineering and architecture about $3.8 million, a BA in journalism and communications about $2.7 million and a BA in education about $2 million, according to the Georgetown study.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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