Setting College Attainment Goals to Improve State Economic Performance

September 21, 2015

Guest Post By Rich Nickel, President and CEO, College Success Arizona


Postsecondary education is often discussed, and rightly so, in terms of its social benefits and its benefits for individuals. College graduates earn more over the course of their lifetimes, have lower unemployment rates and are better prepared for 21st century workforce needs. Graduates are also more likely to be active and participatory citizens and vote at higher rates than those without a postsecondary education.

It is increasingly clear, though, that postsecondary education is also an essential component of economic development. Research shows states can significantly improve their economic performance by increasing attainment rates—the percentage of adults in a state with high-quality postsecondary degrees and credentials, including associate’s and bachelor’s degrees and certificates.

As part of our mission to build public will for college completion, College Success Arizona is committed to producing and disseminating information that can guide important conversations about education in our state. To this end, we recently released Advancing the Economy Through Attainment: What Arizona Can Learn From States With Higher Education Attainment Goals. This brief is the first in a series of non-partisan, evidence-based policy briefs focusing on the benefits of increasing Arizona’s postsecondary attainment rate and understanding the barriers and economic success stories of increased attainment, especially among low income and first generation college-going students. 

The brief takes an in-depth look at how Arizona compares to select peer states that, unlike Arizona, have set strong statewide attainment goals. These states include: Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas. You can read and download an electronic copy of the brief on our website.

Why College Attainment Matters

In Arizona, the need to increase our state’s attainment rate cannot be overstressed. Projections indicate that, by 2020, 68 percent of all jobs in Arizona will require a postsecondary credential. However, only 37 percent of adults in our state hold such a credential. This gap has consequences both for our state’s residents and our economy. Individuals holding a bachelor’s degree, for example, earn nearly twice as much as those who hold only a high school diploma. And, at the state level, we estimate that by adding only 1,000 more college graduates to the workforce, Arizona would increase its tax revenue by more that $2.2 million per year. These and other data make it clear that increasing our attainment rate represents a tremendous opportunity to strengthen Arizona’s workforce and economy. The key question, then, is how can we make sure more Arizonan’s hold these important postsecondary credentials? The answer is, of course, complex and multidimensional. But, as many other states have shown, setting a strong attainment goal is a key first step.

The Benefits of Setting an Attainment Goal

So far, educators and policymakers in 31 states have established statewide goals, 16 of which are considered strong goals by Lumina Foundation, the leading independent organization focused on postsecondary attainment. In many of these states, the benefits of setting a strong attainment goal have been striking. Among the five peer states examined in our policy brief, for example, Kentucky has seen its attainment rate increase by nearly 4.5 percentage points, accompanied by increased AP and SAT participation, and a boom in adults returning to school to complete their studies.  

These gains highlight the potential for the development of policies contributing to increased attainment rates, as well as improved indicators of attainment-related dimensions of the secondary and postsecondary education landscapes in a state. These indicators include, among others, AP and SAT participation rates, Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA) completion rates and postsecondary enrollment of 18 to 24 year olds.

Similarly, policymakers in Tennessee are using the state’s nationally recognized attainment goal—known as the “Drive to 55”—to move the needle on economic development. Fundamental to this campaign is a policy that calls for 100 percent completion of the FAFSA, which is a key step for high school students on the path to postsecondary education. This policy seems to be paying off, as Tennessee has a FAFSA completion rate (69 percent) that is notably higher than the other peer states we looked at.

Strengthening Our States

The importance of a strong workforce is evident to policymakers and state leaders across the country, and they are increasingly concerned with the impact that postsecondary education attainment rates have on their respective economies. Consequently, many have established attainment goals in an effort to drive economic progress, both now and in the future. 

By setting strong attainment goals, policymakers and state leaders signal the importance of attainment for the state and help to align the state’s education priorities with economic priorities and workforce needs. In Arizona, setting an attainment goal will help to galvanize our collective energies to establish policies that will help us share in the benefits that other states with attainment goals are experiencing.

About College Success Arizona
College Success Arizona is working to create a significant increase in the postsecondary attainment rate of students in Arizona, particularly for those who otherwise would not be able to attend or graduate. By doing so, we believe that we will improve the quality of life not just for those individuals and their families but also for the state as a whole. 


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