Mar 9, 2023 - Politics

Boosting AZ college enrollment could mean billions in economic impact

Data: Helios Education Foundation and Education Forward Arizona; Chart: Axios Visuals

Increasing college attendance in Arizona would generate billions of dollars for the state economy, in addition to improving individual earning potential, per a new report from Helios Education Foundation and Education Forward Arizona.

State of play: Metro Phoenix education and business leaders are pushing back against a growing narrative that "college isn't for everyone," by highlighting the financial and social gains that come with higher education.

  • Nationally, college enrollment declined about 8% between 2019 and 2022.
  • Arizona's four-year universities bucked that trend and increased enrollment, but our two-year programs saw about a 4% decline.

What's happening: City University of New York economics professor Clive Belfield, who authored the new report, said a growing number of students across the country are skeptical about continuing their education because of concerns about the cost and value in today's wobbly economy.

  • Yes, but: "Study after study" — including the one released Wednesday — disproves these concerns, he said.

Why it matters: Skilled workers are critical to ensuring Phoenix's continued economic growth, particularly in key industries like advanced manufacturing and health care.

What they're saying: "A more educated workforce leads certainly to more total income and more earnings. [There's] a definitive tie to more quality jobs, which leads to more economic diversity, and finally more socioeconomic balance and a healthier society," Greater Phoenix Economic Council president and CEO Chris Camacho said at a media event Wednesday.

What they found: Researchers determined college attendance produces significant benefits in three categories: individual income potential, increased state and local tax revenue and social impact.

  • The average Arizonan with an associate's degree will make $287,000 more over their lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma. That increases to $852,000 for bachelor's degree holders.
  • A 20% increase in college enrollment would generate more than $5 billion per graduating class in lifetime social gains like increased work productivity and better health outcomes.
  • It would also result in a $1.8 billion tax revenue boost — the equivalent of about 15% of the state's 2022 general fund budget.

The intrigue: The research also found that if non-white students completed college at the same rate as white students in Arizona, the state would see a tax revenue increase of $3.3 billion and social gains of $8.7 billion

Flashback: In September 2016, Arizona launched Achieve60AZ to get 60% of adults ages 25-64 to hold a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2030.

  • As of this year, the state is up to 48%, from 42% in 2016.

What's next: Helios president and CEO Paul Luna said to reach the 2030 goal and reap the financial benefits that come with it, the state needs to:

  • Increase dual-enrollment options at the high school level so students can start working toward degrees sooner and at a lower cost.
  • Prioritize college readiness as early as elementary school.
  • Work to bring down the cost of a college education and provide financial assistance to low-income Arizonans.
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