Undergrad education is key to Ariz. economy
Indigo Partners
Nov. 25, 2007

Bill Franke

I have been very fortunate in my career. In May, I shared that good fortune in support of an objective that is very important me. A gift to Northern Arizona University's undergraduate College of Business will, I hope, influence young people who are the first in their families to go to college and to support those who need a chance to participate in Arizona's economy.

If this all plays out right, over time this investment will help strengthen the economy and the resulting quality of life in Arizona, a place I have called home for almost four decades.

After the announcement of the gift, I have been asked why I didn't choose a graduate school of business instead of an undergraduate college. The reason is straightforward: Arizona needs more ready-to-work college graduates who can complete their "graduate" education on the job - from doing it, from living it.
Arizona employers inherently understand what is needed: employees with high energy, common sense, ability to prioritize, and good communication skills. You don't need a graduate degree to fill this bill. And, of course, not everybody is meant for graduate school. Some aren't suited for it, some can't afford it, and I believe many don't need it. Working five days a week and learning practical skills from on-the-job mentors, customers, clients and competitors is ultimately what most young people want and need. And, Arizona needs a pool of talent with a good foundation, good basics, from their undergraduate education.

Undergraduate education is crucial for Arizona's long-term economic health. Our economy's future success depends on college graduates entering the job market prepared to thrive in a wide array of fields, many not yet developed in Arizona the way they need to be - engineering, financial services, business services, cultural arts, aerospace, to name a few.

As the sizzle cools in the state's unparalleled real estate, construction and development boom, we need to make diversification of our economy a priority. No news here - we've been saying this for years, particularly at each real-estate market downturn. But, in the end, we do little to prepare our state for that diversification and simply wait for the next real estate up cycle.

One thing we don't do is create the employment raw material needed to attract new business to Arizona - educated young people. The numbers speak for themselves. According to a recent Science Foundation Arizona report, 35 percent of the nation's 25- to 34-year-old students attain an associate's degree or higher, while only 30 percent of our state's students do.

And the report finds that young educated migrants make up a small share of the state's overall educated workers. According to Arizona's Department of Education, Native Americans had the lowest high-school graduation rates in 2003, 58.5 percent, followed by Hispanic students at 63.1 percent. We have one of the lowest college-going rates in the country, with only 12 ninth-graders out of 100 earning a college degree.

Arizona is ranked 43rd in percentage of high-school graduates going to college and 39th in younger population with a college degree. These statistics send a less-than-rosy message to business leaders looking to locate here and hire a quality workforce.

Indeed, one key reason I selected NAU to receive the gift is the college's focus on service to minorities and first-generation students. A smaller college that nurtures individual students, NAU embraces Native American, Hispanic and rural young people whose families have had limited opportunities. The majority of these students remain in Arizona after graduation to work and raise their families.

The state must focus on preparing students from our multicultural heritage for leadership. My hope and expectation is that NAU's College of Business will enhance and expand the opportunity for young men and women to achieve a fair shot at economic success. But NAU, and for that matter, the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, cannot alone make it happen. We all have a role to play.

Bill Franke is managing partner of Indigo Partners, a private investment firm, and former CEO of America West Airlines and other Arizona-based companies. Franke recently made a $25 million gift to Northern Arizona University's College of Business.