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higher education access
Arizona State University, whose president says it has become a model of how higher education can solve many of its problems. Credit: Arizona State University

What if the number of students who graduate from a higher education program became the touchstone for post-secondary education, instead of the number who are turned away?

Arizona State University president Michael M. Crow and his colleagues are challenging traditional notions of what makes a university great and rightly so.

As outlined in a recent Hechinger Report article and a book by Crow and William Dabars, Designing the New American University, on the same topic, Crow proposes a new model for American universities — one that champions access and the social impact of increasing the number of college graduates over the value of exclusivity.

Related: Is Arizona State University the model for the new American university?

“[America’s success in establishing world-class excellence in a relative handful of elite institutions does little to ensure the broad distribution of the benefits of educational attainment,” Crow and Dabars note in their book.

While critics have questioned the impact the ASU-style model will have on teaching quality and faculty retention, this approach has tremendous potential to expand the number of students in Arizona and around the country who can access and benefit from postsecondary education.

By embracing and adapting to changing demographics instead of continuing with business as usual, ASU is helping to address critical gaps in state and national pathways to economic success.

Related: Is a model where access trumps exclusivity the key to higher ed’s future?

Although 68 percent of all jobs in Arizona will require some form of higher education by 2020, only 37 percent of Arizona residents have attained the postsecondary education required to meet these needs. This gap is even more striking for Arizona’s Latino residents, who make up 17 percent of the state’s adult population, with only 11 percent holding a bachelor’s degree.

Over the summer summer, Crow joined Vince Roig, founding chairman, and Paul Luna, president and CEO of the Helios Foundation— a major education foundation based in Phoenix, committed to advancing academic preparedness and fostering a college-going culture for all Arizonans — on a panel to discuss how Arizona can address the Latino degree attainment gap in the state. Crow, Roig and Luna shared their belief that the state “cannot fulfill its greatest potential if it fails to educate the fastest growing populace in the state.”

It’s clear from ASU’s work to increase college access and completion under Crow’s leadership and the investment in statewide programs by Helios that the attainment gap is not immutable. The university has significantly expanded financial aid resources, increased outreach to black and Hispanic students and provided intensive tutoring and mentoring to help incoming students succeed and graduate.

As a result, graduation rates have improved across all student demographics and in fact exceed the national average.

Related: New report proposes helping students qualify for benefits including food stamps

Even as our state’s public universities, including ASU, are on track to meet the goals of our higher-education system, we must improve Arizona’s ability to serve low-income, minority and first-generation college students to hit the targets of the aggressive access, retention and completion goals set by the Arizona Board of Regents.

Arizona has the potential to become a national model for higher education that works for students, grows our economy and expands opportunity for all of us.

There are strategies that ASU, its peers and the educational and policy community as a whole can implement to address these gaps and elevate this collective model for the nation’s higher education institutions. First, states should establish statewide postsecondary attainment goals. Thirty-one states have already done so and, as reported by the Lumina Foundation (a funder of The Hechinger Report), the 16 states with the strongest attainment goals — including Kentucky and Tennessee — are making significant progress. These goals should be targeted towards specific state labor needs and address gaps in attainment between majority and minority populations.

Additionally, states including Arizona should establish targeted financial aid funds for low-income students who are college ready. While financial set asides do currently exist for universities to use to support these students, they are an enigma to most low income and first generation families.

Students experience a general lack of awareness of the existence of these funds. And, they are not incentivized early enough in their high school and middle school years to raise their secondary academic performance to a level that would make them college-ready. With a state-funded and administered financial aid program, states can establish a clear pathway for high-potential, low-income students to get in, graduate and gain employment.

To ensure that these funds have the maximum impact on students, states and the economy, we need to send clear and consistent messages to students early in their secondary careers that college access and support is available to them. As it stands now, most low-income, first generation and minority students in Arizona aren’t aware of tuition assistance programs until their senior year, or until they apply for admission, at which point many of their peers have already tuned out of the process. We also know that students like Hernandez often need intensive mentoring and tutoring to earn a postsecondary degree. ASU’s focus on these supports is one that other institutions will need to replicate in order to shift emphasis to inclusivity rather than exclusivity.

Related: Supreme Court Justices question when and whether diversity will be achieved

As Carlitos Hernandez, a former College Success Arizona staff member noted, “I didn’t know anybody that had ever gone before. I didn’t know if I could do it.’”

We need to ensure that every student who needs it, gets the helping hand that Hernandez did in high school.

Arizona has the potential to become a national model for higher education that works for students, grows our economy and expands opportunity for all of us. With the right policies, programs and resources in place, we can achieve our collective goals.

Rich Nickel is the president and CEO of College Success Arizona.

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