Arizona has been among the nation’s economic leaders for decades, but job growth isn’t a birthright.

No, we have to compete – now more than ever as we vie for quality employers and investment on a global stage. Those of us in Yuma have long benefited from a lower cost of living than the rest of the country and a magnificent natural setting along the Colorado River that have helped attract new residents and build our economy fueled by agriculture, tourism and the military.

But what carried us in the past may not work as well in the future. Economic trends are shifting fast, and research tells us the foundation of the New Economy will be the education, training and adaptability of our workers. Workforce declines are expected in jobs such as food services, office support and production work – jobs that many Yuma residents rely on to provide income for their families.

Education is the answer. And just as our state has been making sizable investments in K-12 schools, we must not forget our community colleges and public universities. It is already projected that, in the near future, 70 percent of all Arizona jobs will require a college degree or other education after high school.

In Yuma’s Legislative District Four, fewer than one in 10 residents have a university degree – approximately half the rate of the rest of Arizona and the country. Average yearly wages range from $43,300 for individuals with a bachelor’s to $27,500 for residents with a high school diploma alone. Unemployment rates are similarly tied to education level – less than 3 percent of college graduates are jobless, as compared to more than 15 percent of local residents who didn’t finish high school.

AWC has established our Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) of doubling baccalaureate attainment in our service area in partnership with our three state universities by 2035. It’s a big goal, but we’re convinced our local economy requires this type of investment.

In the city’s District 13, slightly more than 15 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree with $53,870 earned and $34,290 for high school graduates. Unemployment ranges from around 3 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree to more than 11 percent for less than high school.

The benefits of higher education are clear, and we’re going to increasingly rely on our ten public community college districts and three public universities – Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona. But they can’t do it alone.

The New Economy Initiative will help ensure these institutions have the resources they need to meet this demand of enrolling and graduating more students, while strengthening the economy of our state. University areas of emphasis like engineering, national security and health care are a good match for local employers. What’s more, college graduates on average earn roughly twice as much over their career as high school graduates. That translates into more money for local shops, restaurants and other aspects of our local economy.

According to an economic-impact analysis by Rounds Consulting Group, 1,000 Arizona residents earning their college degrees would result in $22.5 million in annual income, $98.5 million in yearly economic output, $5.6 million in new tax revenues per year and approximately 340 jobs.

But these are just words on paper if students don’t have access to higher education. That’s where the Arizona Promise Program comes in. The scholarship program proposes to cover all tuition and fees to attend any Arizona public university or community college for qualifying students, who must be an Arizona resident, meet academic requirements and be eligible for financial assistance. With a $50 million state investment, our state can unlock a brighter future for these students and change the entire trajectory for their families.

Arizona’s public universities and your local community college, Arizona Western College, are already working to boost educational resources in Yuma by launching a new project to support student success and increase educational opportunities through the Arizona Innovation Alliance, a tri-university partnership to enhance public higher education in Arizona. The Yuma initiative focuses on improving the retention, graduation and academic performance of traditionally underserved students.

During the 2019-2020 year, when the pandemic impacted education across the state, AWC awarded associate degrees at roughly three times the state average, awarded its most associate degrees ever, and saw record number of our students transfer to our state universities where they earned bachelor’s degrees at the highest rate ever. Yet there is so much more work to be done. Arizona Western College stands ready to partner with our three state universities to together meet these goals.

As Arizona emerges from this pandemic-caused downturn, now is the time to think big. An economy built on the smarts of our workforce, not just our sunshine, will be stronger and more resilient for everyone in our community.

I respectfully ask Sen. Lisa Otondo, Rep. Charlene Fernandez and Rep. Joel John of District Four as well as Sen. Sine Kerr, Rep. Timothy M. Dunn and Rep. Joanne Osborne of District 13 to support the New Economy Initiative. It’s an investment in Yuma and La Paz Counties.

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