Myths surrounding higher education resurface during commencement season

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

During this commencement season at our universities, I am inspired by the achievements of 22,000 graduates who have fulfilled their visions of higher education through tenacity and dedication, cementing a foundation for a better life by earning their degrees.

This joyous time is a reason for all of us in higher education to celebrate as it is the culmination of everything we work for, to see our students earn their degrees and launch careers made much more promising because of their education. This is also a victory for our great state as Arizona reaps boundless benefits from a highly-educated workforce - from meeting high-demand job needs to fueling innovation.

Commencement news always brings about discussions about the value of higher education and some of the more persistent myths resurface. In case there is any doubt, let me address some of the myths:

Myth: A college degree isn't worth the cost.

Facts: Arizona college graduates will earn more on average than an individual with a high-school degree. In 2013, the median earnings in Arizona of an individual with a graduate degree were $57,365. For someone with a bachelor's degree, their earnings were $48,350. By contrast, Arizona high-school graduates had median earnings of $26,561.

Even in times of economic hardship, college graduates continue to succeed. In the midst of the Great Recession, total wages earned by graduates of Arizona's public universities grew by 40 percent from approximately $9.4 billion in 2007 to about $13.2 billion in 2012. By contrast, wages paid to individuals without an Arizona university degree fell by 2.9 percent during the same time period.

Myth: A college degree doesn't matter in today's workforce.

Facts: Employment statistics grew for Arizona university graduate wage earners during the Great Recession, expanding by 27 percent, whereas the total number of those without a degree from our universities fell by 11 percent in employment during the five-year period.

I find these numbers remarkable in that Arizona's public university graduates proved to be relatively recession proof during one of the worst economic downturns in our nation's history. This speaks volumes for our graduates' future and for the good of our state.

Myth: University graduates don't influence Arizona's economy.

Facts: Graduates are a major economic driver for Arizona with an estimated $13.2 billion in wages and $947 million paid in state and local taxes by 241,434 students who graduated from Arizona's public universities between 1990 and 2012 who are currently employed in Arizona.

And, the vast majority of our students remain in Arizona after graduation - approximately 70 percent, in fact, who are employed in our state after earning their degrees, while the remaining 30 percent choose another path such as taking a job out of state or continuing their education.

Our graduates also fill a dire need for skilled workers in Arizona. By 2018, two-thirds of all jobs in Arizona will require some type of postsecondary education. The board is addressing this need through increasingly aggressive year over year goals to increase bachelor's degree production to more than 30,000 by 2020.

Our universities also influence the economy through individual spin-out companies, 14 of which were established in 2012-13 alone.

Myth: College is too expensive.

Facts: The Arizona Board of Regents and our universities are committed to keeping college affordable for all Arizonans, not just those at the top of the economic ladder. Our commitment remains strong, despite state funding cuts of almost $100 million for FY16.

Arizona's universities are offering more low-cost options through partnerships with community colleges and smaller, non-research based campuses such as ASU Colleges at Lake Havasu, NAU-Yavapai and UA South.

In addition, our universities fare much better than many institutions with 40 percent of our undergraduates graduating with no debt. The remaining 60 percent have an average of $22,903 in debt which is below the national average of $26,233.

All of this bodes well for the class of 2015 as they enter the next exciting phase of their lives, contributing to society and to Arizona. I'm proud of our graduates, and I'm anticipating hearing of the vast and varied contributions that they will make to our state and to the world.

I think Benjamin Franklin said it well, "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."