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By Liz Warren-Pederson

In 2012, 27.3 percent of Arizona residents age 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or better, according to the latest data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. That figure was below the national rate of 29.1 percent and ranked Arizona 29th in the U.S.

That hasn’t always been the case, according to a new study released by Eller’s Economic and Business Research Center (EBR).

“In 1940, Arizona’s college attainment rate ranked fourth in the U.S.,” said George Hammond, associate director of EBR and author of the report, which examines college attainment data over the past 70 years.

College attainment in Arizona’s major metropolitan areas is on par with the national average. Tucson posted the highest college attainment rate in 2012 at 30.2 percent, followed by Flagstaff (29.8 percent), and Phoenix (29.2 percent). Prescott (26.5 percent), Yuma (14.3 percent), and Lake Havasu City-Kingman (11.2 percent) fared less well against the national rate.

From 1950 to 2010, only the Flagstaff metropolitan area experienced faster growth in its college attainment rate than the nation. “Since 1940, Arizona’s college attainment rate has increased, but not as fast as the national average,” Hammond said. “By 1990, Arizona’s rate was equal to the U.S. and the state gradually fell behind during the next 22 years.”

One factor contributing to Arizona’s slow growth relative to the nation is the low college attainment rate of the Hispanic population, combined with rapid population gains. In 2012, the Arizona Hispanic college attainment rate was 11.7 percent, which was below the national rate of 13.8 percent and below the Arizona Non-Hispanic rate of 32.3 percent (31.6 percent for the U.S.).

While the state Hispanic college attainment rate is low, it has been rising rapidly. The state rate for Hispanics rose by 106.6 percent (more than doubling) from 1980 to 2012, compared to 80.7 percent for the nation. In contrast, the state Non-Hispanic college attainment rate has been increasing at a slow pace. From 1980 to 2012, the state rate increased by 69.1 percent, compared to 89.1 percent for the nation.  Thus, sluggish gains in the Non-Hispanic college attainment rate have also contributed to slow overall gains in Arizona.

“The college attainment rate of Arizona residents, both Hispanic and Non-Hispanic, matters because education is a crucial determinant of long-run income growth for states and local areas,” Hammond said. High concentrations of highly educated residents in a region, particularly those with a Bachelor’s degree or better, leads to stronger income growth in the region in the long run. Further, it is not just highly educated workers that benefit. Less educated workers also earn more in cities with high concentrations of the highly educated.

A brief summary and the full report, titled “Troubling Trends in Arizona’s College Attainment Rate,” are available free online.  The full study presents detailed evidence on Arizona’s college attainment trends during the past 70 years, including trends for state counties and metropolitan areas.

Top photo by Thomas Veneklasen.