College degree even more important in today's economy - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

College degree even more important in today's economy

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Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 1:28 pm

Two weeks ago, Alex Frias received his diploma from ASU Polytechnic.

The 22-year-old engineering graduate accepted a job this week with GM at its Yuma facility, where Frias graduated from high school.

Debt-free thanks to scholarships, and job in-hand, Frias said he considers himself one of the "lucky" ones.

"I'm one of the lucky ones out of most of the students I know graduating. Though they have pretty good jobs it's not necessarily engineering related. There are just three or four of us that have jobs set," he said. "Most of my other (non engineering) friends are going into grad schools. They're either still in school, going to grad school or still looking for jobs."

According to recent unemployment statistics, they're headed in the right direction. And so are many of the high school seniors graduating this week and preparing for their own college experience.

A degree may make them less likely to be one of the statistics.

April's unemployment rate for Arizona was 9.5 percent, up half a percent from a year ago. Nationwide, the rate was 9.9 percent.

The unemployment rate for those with a college degree or higher was much lower nationwide, at 4.9 percent. The rate for high school graduates without college was 10.6 percent.

And those without a high school diploma were most likely to be unemployed, at 14.7 percent.

While Arizona's economy in the past may have held better promise for those without a college degree, the changing look of the career market may lend better proof to potential students that now is the time to continue education, one ASU expert says.

Dennis Hoffman, an economics professor with the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, said for the past 30 years, the big universities have seen college students take one or two years of college, but then land jobs in service, retail, construction and other industries without finishing a degree.

"What those kids saw was their parents did pretty well and I bet many of them had parents who didn't have a college education," he said. "All you needed to do was be able to manage a staff of relatively low-skilled workers and you could make a lot of money."

But moving forward, those industries have seen a big hit in Arizona, especially construction, because fewer people are moving here. Plus, there has been a change in collective thinking about employers in Arizona. Those jobs managing a group of unskilled, often illegal workers, are disappearing because people care that the workers are undocumented, Hoffman said.

"The opportunity to go entrepreneurial or the business that thrives on abundant cheap labor may not be as easy to do in this environment. There are fewer of those cheap labor who are legal. In this economy we really care. In the past we didn't," he said.

There's always been a huge income divide between the educated and uneducated, around $1 million in earnings over a person's life, he said. That may be increasing.

"All of this in my opinion puts a greater imperative on college education," he said. "Degree attainment is a signal. You have incredible resolve, incredible initiative to perform. You've acquired skill. You're are able to transfer those skills to the workforce.

"People who are long-term employed people and don't suffer from unemployment levels have figured out there's no entitlement in employment. You maintain stable employment by demonstrating to your employer you're valued."

That means a high school diploma also means more than it did in the past, because it's the first step toward more education, said Nicole Magnuson of Expect More Arizona.

"There's so much research that shows the higher your education the higher your earning potential," she said. More and more, having a degree is the baseline. More companies require a degree to get your foot in the door. At the very least they require advanced certification and training.

And that baseline may be rising, Magnuson said, because more people are getting a college degree. She's already talking to her two young children about not only college, but the fact that a master's degree may be needed.

That's the direction recent ASU grad Katie Kelly, 21, may be headed.

She received her bachelor of science degree in nutrition two weeks ago and began a job Tuesday as a weight loss counselor in Gilbert. But she's considering medical school down the road.

It took her a dozen applications and three interviews to land one job offer. She started her search six months ago, but said it was not as hard as I expected.

"Most of my friends are either continuing with school or are moving back in with their parents. Some of my friends have gotten jobs, but they're a minority," she said. Those headed back to school, "were a little scared to enter the job market."

Medical school has always been on the horizon, Kelly said. She's just waiting to see figure out when.

"I definitely think this is where I want to be right now. I like the degree I got. School was definitely worth my time," she said.

Expect More Arizona was created to encourage and develop that birth- through career expectation in the state. Part of the solution to help young Arizona graduates compete more is to raise the bar on what's expected of them, Magnuson said.

That's one reason recent legislation was passed to craft a new diploma - the Grand Canyon Diploma - in the state for high school students to attain. It requires them to pass rigorous, college-level tests, but they can do so as early as the end of their sophomore year. Then they can go onto technical or career training, advanced high school courses or even community college.

"When you look at Arizona education compared to other places, we have work to do," she said. "We need to increase standards. We need to have tougher curriculum."

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