Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng told a group of Phoenix-area business and government leaders Tuesday that increasing access to high-quality, affordable education is a top priority if Arizona companies are going to compete successfully in a global economy. In remarks before the Maricopa Association of Governments’ (MAG) Economic Development Committee, Cheng said NAU programs and partnerships in the Phoenix area are aimed at increasing the number of degree holders in the region and throughout the state.

According to Expect More Arizona, almost 70 percent of the jobs in Arizona will require more than a high school education by the year 2020, but only 40 percent of adults in Maricopa County have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, or a workforce credential.

“If we want a robust economy and to attract employers, it’s critically important to increase those numbers and keep the dream of a college education within reach of all Arizona high school graduates,” Cheng said.

She highlighted NAU’s partnerships in Maricopa County that are addressing that gap, such as degree programs at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, bachelor’s degree completion programs on the campuses of Maricopa Community Colleges and partnerships with businesses and governments to help employees earn undergraduate and graduate degrees. Many of the programs are aimed at helping working adults and non-traditional students earn degrees.

“I understand the importance of these services to non-traditional students because I was one myself,” Cheng told the audience. “I know the challenge of pursuing a degree while raising small children, and I know that sometimes life doesn’t let you end up in the same town as a four-year university.”

She also highlighted NAU’s combined enrollment of more than 31,000 students on the Flagstaff campus, community campuses and online, and pointed out that more than 53,000 NAU alumni reside in Maricopa County.

“Our main campus may be up in Flagstaff, but our roots run deep here in Maricopa County,” Cheng said.

The MAG Economic Development Committee is composed of elected officials and business leaders from throughout Maricopa County. MAG member agencies include 27 cities and towns, three Native American communities, Maricopa County and portions of Pinal County.