What’s the problem? Some students are not adequately prepared academically and don’t have the know-how about how to plan for what comes after high school. Certain factors, like being a first-generation college student or living in a rural area, make access to postsecondary options more difficult.
From the moment you’re born, statistics can line up against you. If your family is poor, you’re less likely to go to college. If your parents didn’t go, you’re less likely to make it there.
In Arizona, only about one-third of children born in 2017 had mothers with at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the state demographer. That’s nine percentage points behind the national average, ranking Arizona 47th.
The stats follow you through your education: If your school didn’t do enough to prepare you, you may not be qualified for what comes next.
Less than half of Arizona high school graduates meet the requirements for entry to an Arizona university, according to a study by the Arizona Board of Regents in 2014, the most recent year available.
Some schools may not have a qualified teacher for classes required for college entry.
A lack of preparedness to navigate life and education after high school creates barriers for students as they decide what to do next. That education gap, and the statistics it brings with it, can follow people for the rest of their lives.
The state must figure out how to address these barriers to meet its goal of 60% of working-age adults getting some kind of training or education beyond high school by 2030. Now, the state’s rate is 45%, and if trends continue as they are, Arizona will not achieve its goal.
Policymakers, educators and advocates will need to figure out how to support students who will be the first in their families to go to college and those who need additional support once they get there. They will need to better prepare high school students for what happens after they don a cap and gown.
Nonprofit groups already offer some programs that assist students. The Be A Leader Foundation, for instance, holds a boot camp in the summer designed to help students “slay senior year.”
Enrique Soto Rabago, a 17-year-old senior at Cesar Chavez High Schoolin Laveen, attended the senior year boot camp. He hopes to go to the College of the Atlantic in Maine, a private college that focuses only on ecology.
Maine is far from home and the family that’s supported him, and money is a major factor in whether his dream will be possible. But he’s pretty sure he’ll make it.
“I’ve always wanted to go to college,” he said. “There was never a time where I was like, ‘Oh I don’t want to go to college.’ My parents came here from Mexico, and they said they came here for a better education for me and my sisters. So instead of throwing that away, I’m going to fulfill their dreams and my dream by going to college.”
Be A Leader helps students learn how to apply for college, find scholarships, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, create resumes and more. It helps students be prepared for systems they may not know how to navigate.
But programs like Be A Leader are relatively small compared with the need. Some students get lucky and find information elsewhere.
The problems in Arizona stack up
Getting to education or training beyond high school first requires a student to graduate. And that’s another area where Arizona lags the national average.
In Arizona, 78% of students graduate from high school, according to Expect More Arizona’s Education Progress Meter. Nationally, the rate is about 85%.
Just graduating won’t prepare a student for college, though. In some cases, it won’t even qualify them.
Graduation requirements at some high schools don’t align with the requirements to gain admission to a state university. The state’s minimum graduation requirements are less than what’s required for university admission here, though some high schools set graduation standards that go beyond those required for admission to a state university.
Some areas of difference: The Arizona Board of Regents requires students to have two years of a foreign language, but that’s not a graduation requirement in some high schools.
University standards also call for students to take specific math courses, including one advanced class, while high school graduation simply requires four years of math.
Few states actually align high school graduation and college entry requirements, a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress found. But in Louisiana, the state did so and it’s one of several factors that likely have played a role in boosting college enrollment there.
For many students who would be first-generation college-goers, the high school environment is pivotal in preparing them for what comes next and helping them navigate how to make a post-high school plan.
But Arizona’s counselor ratio is the highest in the nation, with 905 students to every one counselor on average. In many high schools, this counseling ratio means students may not get much face time or assistance to help ready them for college or ensure they have a next step planned.
“That’s just really hard to provide some of the individualized, intentional work in that area that students need,” said Amanda Nolasco, chair of the Arizona School Counselors Association and a counselor in the Phoenix Union High School District.
More barriers for students of color
The 2014 study by the regents showed some areas where the problem was more pronounced.
Rural areas are hit harder than Maricopa and Pima counties. The rate of studentsnot prepared for college was worse for those who were Latino, African American or Native American than it was for white and Asian American students. The study found the differences among different ethnic groups “may reflect socioeconomic disparities, income differences, and school resource differences.”
Arizona high school graduates who are Asian or white were more likely to enroll in postsecondary education than Latino and Native American students, the 2018 Arizona Minority Student Progress Report found.
The opportunity gap for Latino students is something policymakers here worry about, considering Arizona’s K-12 system is increasingly Latino. The number of Latinos pursuing postsecondary education or training is improving, but Arizona will not meet its 60% goal without narrowing opportunity gaps for people of color.
Paul Luna, the president and CEO of the Helios Education Foundation, which works to improve education for students in Arizona and Florida, said the relative youth and lack of access to college of the Latino population was made clear at his daughter’s graduation ceremony this past spring.
At the Hispanic convocation, someone asked people to stand if they were the first in their family to graduate from college. Nearly the entire group stood, Luna said. His daughter, graduating with her master’s, was one of a few who did not.
“You got that real sense of that youth and the opportunity that the Latino community represents, with this idea of first-generation students,” Luna said.
Many Latino students face barriers that can keep them from higher education, like income levels that make it hard to pay for school, underfunded high schools that aren’t offering rigorous classes and a lack of knowledge from family who haven’t gone to college, according to a report from the Helios Education Foundation.
Other barriers included limited options for people without legal immigration status and perceived negative stereotypes about Latinos, the report found.
The strong majority of students said they were likely to attend college, much higher than the number who end up enrolling, the report noted. Their aspirations were higher than their opportunities, it appeared.
Many students surveyed said they relied on schools to fill in with information on how to prepare for and get to college, given the lack of experience from their families. They also said they were frustrated by a lack of advanced course options.
“Further, some students believed they were actually being counseled out of pursuing a college education due to their school or community norms,” the report said.
Solutions in rural Miami
Students in rural areas see barriers to postsecondary plans as well.
Rural schools face declining school enrollment, unemployment and underemployment in their communities, limited broadband internet access, difficulty attracting teachers, a shortened school week, a lack of school counselors.
Rural schools are physically remote, often far away from colleges that kids in urban areas regularly see. They get fewer recruitment visits. Some parents may want their kids to stay close to home after graduation.
At Miami Junior Senior High School, Principal Glen Lineberry and his team are working to improve the school and better prepare kids for what comes next. Miami, a small town about 80 miles east of Phoenix, was born in the state’s mining boom and has since seen its population decline.
Part of the plan includes ASU Prep Digital, a suite of online high school courses. The school uses the digital courses to supplement the curriculum it’s able to offer. The school’s curriculum and books are outdated, Lineberry said.
The kids can get the most up-to-date options by going online with ASU Prep Digital. Plus, many of them will take online courses later in life, so having an online classroom experience now will help them be ready.
In both rural and urban areas, the program may help address a teacher shortage that has left some schools without qualified people to teach certain courses. Some schools don’t even offer courses that are required for university entry.
Miami doesn’t have a school counselor, though it has a college and career adviser.
Jenn Walker, who started as an AmeriCorps member at the school before being hired, launched a senior seminar this year, where she meets with each senior one-on-one to help them decide what they want to do after high school.
“Most, if not every single one of them, are probably going to enter education again in some form or another. … They need to continue advancing their skills. It doesn’t stop here,” Walker said.
Gabi Cabrera, a senior at Miami, sits in the computer lab where senior seminar meets, a room with pennants showing several university logos.
She and her classmates are working on steps to get to college, like applications, financial aid and the transition from their small town to a bigger campus.
“We’re stressed right now,” Cabrera said. “You don’t know if you’re taking the right step. … Just like little town mindset to a big town, it’s stressful.”
College isn’t the only path
But not every kid is going to go to a four-year university; that’s not the right path for every high school graduate.
Recognizing this, some policymakers have renewed their focus on career and technical education — courses like welding, nursing services or culinary arts that help students learn more specialized skills that relate directly to the workforce.
Students who take these courses are more likely to graduate from high school, some studies suggest. After graduation, they can enter the workforce directly or take just a small amount of additional training to land a job.
This year’s state budget added $10 million to public high school career and technical education programs.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said a focus on creating a thriving K-12 environment will help improve attainment by making high school graduates more prepared for the world after graduation.
“Upon high school completion, you’re going to have a better college student, a better community college student. You’re going to have a kid in 8th, 9th and 10th grade that is looking at options and making decisions around vocational or technical training,” he said.
Miami has put new life into career and technical programs. The school’s culinary arts program was reborn under Dan Hill, who teaches not only the culinary program but also English and Japanese. On a recent Monday afternoon, he donned a blue apron that said “Commander in Chef” and showed students proper knife techniques.
Samuel Benedetto, a senior at Miami, took Hill’s culinary class last year and was on hand to help new students learn the skills he now knows well.
Benedetto wants to become a chef. He’s already cooking at a restaurant in town and got the necessary certifications, like a food handler’s permit, for the job. He’s always had a passion for cooking, but the culinary classes have given him a deeper understanding of how the kitchen works. He plans to go to culinary school.
“I actually want to build myself up and go from being a chef to owning my own restaurant. That’s my big goal,” he said.
Connecting young people to jobs
Beyond career and technical education, organizations have stepped in to help students prepare for good-paying, professional jobs.
Year Up is a nonprofit that readies community college students for the workforce and encourages both education and work training. The yearlong program trains underserved adults aged 18 to 24 on workplace skills and how to tackle college credits while connecting them with major companies for internships.
Participants can earn college credits while they’re part of the program.
Kim Owens, the executive director at Year Up, said one of the program’s goals is to connect young adults with good-paying jobs. But the program also requires participants to be students, and all of the employers who partner with the program also offer tuition assistance, she said. Year Up participants are encouraged to continue their education after they finish the program, Owens said.
Companies sponsor interns from Year Up because “they know that if they have a chance to build diverse talent pipelines into their companies, their companies are better for it,” Owens said.
Jonah Porter, a participant, said he wasn’t prepared for college after high school, though he didn’t blame anything in particular for that. He just wasn’t quite ready and he wasn’t motivated. He took some community college classes before connecting with the program.
The 23-year-old now works at Bank of America, where he was hired after he finished an internship. He wants to work in real estate and doesn’t think he’ll finish a college degree. The program helped him build confidence and secure a better-paying job than he otherwise could have, he said.
“I just don’t think a regular school can do it,” Porter said.