Monday, January 28, 2013

My Turn Column by Dr. Bustamante

The following My Turn column was recently published by The Arizona Republic in several community sections in Maricopa County. 

Dr. Chris Bustamante
Rio Salado College President

We must create pathways to higher education for all citizens

By Dr. Chris Bustamante
President of Rio Salado College

Providing pathways to college degrees and certificates is vital to our nation’s economic recovery. It has never been more important to help individuals gain the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in the job market.

Here in Arizona, we have seen deep budget cuts to education since the onset of the recession in 2008. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the state has reduced funding to K-12 schools by more than 20 percent during this time period. In addition, a study released early this year from The Center for the Study of Higher Education at Illinois State University, shows that state support for higher education in Arizona has been reduced by nearly 32 percent over the last five years.

Our most vulnerable communities feel the greatest impact when educational resources are reduced or eliminated. Residents in these neighborhoods can’t afford to wait for the economy to improve or for legislative action to be taken to restore funding.

Data from the Arizona Department of Education indicates that last year, 825,000 or 17 percent of Arizona residents, age 16 and older, did not have a high school diploma or a GED, and were not enrolled in school.

As budget concerns continue to grow, educational institutions must create cost-efficient and sustainable partnerships whenever possible in order to retain and engage high school students and provide opportunities for adults who want to improve their lives.

KJZZ’s SPOT 127 new youth media center in Maryvale is an example of such a partnership. KJZZ, along with the Phoenix Union High School District, Rio Salado College and other community partners, launched this innovative initiative that teaches high school students state-of-the-art skills in digital media, radio broadcast and journalism. Experience shows that students involved in after-school classes like these are more likely to complete high school and continue on to college.

When students are prepared to enter college and succeed in the learning process, they become role models for family members and others in the community. This is especially true for first-generation college students.

It is also important to provide access to adults who need basic education, want to earn a GED, improve their language skills or prepare to enroll in college. Regardless of where they are in their pathway, adult learners overcome many obstacles in order to advance their lives through education. Challenges include limited resources and over-loaded schedules. Many work several jobs in order to provide for themselves and their families. Transportation can also be an issue. In addition, most adult students haven’t been in school for many years and lack the confidence to take the next step.

Barriers to educational access can be alleviated when educational institutions and community organizations forge partnerships to provide support and convenient access to education in neighborhoods that need it most. As students transition on to college classes, online options also provide the flexibility they need as working adults.

If we expect our citizens to improve their circumstances through pathways to higher education, we must engage them early on in the process and provide renewed opportunity for those who fall behind. It will take a willingness and commitment from educational, business and community organizations to partner and provide the empowerment tools necessary to strengthen individuals and communities.