Partnerships promote access to higher education


Building a culture of higher education in Arizona, a state in which only 25 percent of adults hold a college degree, will require just the right environment: high expectations, informed parents and motivated students.

That’s the belief of Expect More Arizona, which is now matching its long-running multimedia public awareness campaign with a commitment to grassroots outreach.

And the organization is not working alone.

A long list of partners, including universities and other educational advocacy groups, is contributing funds and leadership to the culture-making effort.

One of EMA’s partners, GEAR UP, or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, recently was awarded a $30 million grant to help low-income students graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college. The program is based on research that has shown the effectiveness of early, long-term intervention and awareness.

Northern Arizona University was awarded Arizona’s GEAR UP grants in 2000 and in 2006. Last year, Gov. Jan Brewer designated NAU to apply for the grant again.

The collaboration with GEAR UP points to another key element to increasing Arizona’s population of college graduates: inclusiveness. Students who might not even consider college, or assume it to be out of reach, will need to be brought into the equation. And that means involving their parents.

“Expect More Arizona is really about increasing public awareness and fostering a deeper understanding of the issues at play,” said Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of the organization.

Those issues, she said, involve questions that underlie any attempt to increase higher education on a large scale. Do parents really understand what college-ready means? If so, then how would they take responsibility and ownership in working with K-12 schools to be sure that students are on track?

“It’s about equipping stakeholders with tools and resources,” Chang Esau said. “We have to know how to help connect parents to information that helps them know what a world-class education looks like and then give them ongoing support to assess how kids are doing.”

Chang Esau said the state’s universities play an important role by showing leadership in setting higher expectations.

“They have laid out some really big goals,” Chang Esau said, referring specifically to graduation and other metrics in the Arizona Board of Regents Enterprise plan. “The universities are working downward to partner with K-12 education to make sure those goals are feasible and obtainable.”

According to Daniel Kain, NAU vice provost for Academic Personnel and principal investigator for GEAR UP, the GEAR UP partnership with Expect More Arizona moves the state forward in recognizing the importance of higher education. “We have seen the dramatic impact of GEAR UP activities in enriching the lives of Arizona’s young people,” Kain said, “and this partnership will create even more opportunities for Arizonans to succeed.”

NAU President John Haeger has been a staunch proponent of partnerships to advance higher education.

“We are in an era when a bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma,” Haeger said, “so there’s a strong need to create a college-going culture throughout Arizona. Increasing student access to higher education will ultimately help lead the state to economic success.”

With a general election approaching, which typically brings more attention to public education funding and standards, Chang Esau said that Arizona citizens can expect to hear more about best practices in the state.

“We need to know where we’re at right now so that we can have a shared vision of where we’re trying to go,” Chang Esau said. “A lot of good work is being done to lead students, parents and other stakeholders to greater clarity and transparency.”