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Increasing Access to Higher Education; Benefiting Individuals, Communities

Last month, we celebrated an extraordinary class of Lumberjacks: More than 5,800 students earned degrees from Northern Arizona University. Commencement celebrates the tenacity, dedication and determination our students have displayed through many years of hard work. This is one of many personal achievements that will define their lives and mark the beginning of a new chapter and new possibilities.

These graduates are our future. Many of our Lumberjacks are living and working in Arizona after their graduation and they are positively affecting the quality of life, health, education and economic outcomes in the state.

NAU’s economic impact is growing as we create jobs, intellectual property, technology transfer and business incubation. We are educating and developing the sophisticated, high-level workforce to meet the demands of today’s industry.

But, there is more we need to do, as increased access to higher education and alignment of educational outcomes to workforce needs are essential to the success of our state and communities.   

If educational attainment trends stay on their current trajectory, only 17.2% of today’s ninth graders in Arizona will graduate from a four-year college by 2028.

Nearly half of Arizonans are not entering two- or four-year colleges after high school graduation. Our state’s enrollment rate of 52.6% has remained unchanged since 2013 and compares unfavorably to the national rate of 70%.

Higher education faces unprecedented challenges at a national level as college enrollment has declined for 12 straight years and is expected to decline further in the next decade.

This is the result of demographic factors including lower birthrates and larger populations of first-generation and underrepresented minority students who face unique barriers to education as well as rising tuition propelled by decreased state investment in public universities.

As a recent presentation by the state’s demographer highlighted, the impact on Arizona’s student enrollments and the state’s economy must also factor in trends beyond lower birthrates. The presentation highlighted the impact of migration patterns of individuals into and out of Arizona and the educational attainment of those individuals.

These are issues that must continue to be at the forefront of our planning efforts and NAU must continue to play a critical role in our state’s attainment goal of 60% of Arizonans completing a certificate or college degree by 2030. Today, we stand at 43%.

To achieve these goals, we are working with political, community and business leaders to ensure our university is educating the workforce of the future, and that an NAU degree has and will continue to have tremendous benefit to our state and beyond.

We are increasingly recognized on the national stage for our ability to thrive in the changing world of higher education and for the high-quality educational experience we provide for our students.

Our faculty members continue to be nationally and globally recognized and their mentorship is reflected in the quality of our students and the graduates who walked across the commencement stage last month.

I want our students to succeed and to take advantage of opportunities before them. I also want Arizona’s economy to grow and to remain competitive. That is why NAU is actively involved in helping our communities and our state educate more students and impact more areas of the workforce. We are growing our online presence, enhancing programs at our community campuses and strengthening our community college partnerships to ensure NAU remains competitive and viable for our students, employees, community and state. FBN

By Rita Cheng

Rita Cheng is the president of Northern Arizona University.

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