Initiative keeps prospective Sun Devils on track toward college
Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.
As part of its mission to widen access to higher education, Arizona State University sent “acceptance letters” to more than 1,450 senior high school students in Phoenix at the start of the school year — before they'd even applied to ASU — to keep them on track and demystify the college process.
Now, more than half of the Phoenix Union High School District students who received the letters have applied to ASU and have been officially accepted, according to Matthew Lopez, associate vice president of academic enterprise enrollment at ASU and executive director of admission services.
“What we were hoping would happen is a little bit of behavioral psychology – that, ‘Hey, we’ve got your back and you can do this,’ and getting that message out early,” he said.
About half of the Phoenix Union seniors received letters telling them that they had the 3.0 grade point average and 14 courses required to meet admission requirements to ASU. The other half received letters telling them that they were close to hitting the requirements, with a 2.8 to 2.99 grade point average and within two courses, and what they needed to do to get in.
Rising juniors and sophomores also received a letter noting how many required courses they had completed and how many were needed by senior year.
The students were excited, according to Thea Andrade, chief achievement officer for the Phoenix Union High School District, which has 22 high schools.
“It set out a really good energy across campus for our seniors,” she said.
“A couple of them said, ‘Whoa, is this real?’ Which is good – we want them to question. Now the next step in the process will come with more confidence because of those letters.”
Lopez said that one goal of the letters was to demystify university admissions.
“I have no interest in making this a scary, anxiety-ridden process,” he said.
“It was really good to hear the students say, ‘Oh that was such a relief to know that I was going to the university.’
“If we can get that into more young people’s hands, and family members as well, I think that we’ll start to see some of the attainment that we need in this state.”
Increasing the number of Arizonans with postsecondary education is important for the state’s economy because nearly 70% of jobs require it, according to Education Forward Arizona.
About 46% of Arizonans had a two- or four-year degree or postsecondary credential in 2019, and the goal is to hit 60% by 2030.
In addition, according to the 2021 postsecondary attainment report by the Arizona Board of Regents:
• In 2020, 46% of Arizona’s high school graduating class enrolled in a two- or four-year degree program.
• Of the students who pursue a four-year degree after graduating from an Arizona high school, about 68% choose one of the three state public universities.
• Based on current trends, only 17% of Arizona students will earn a degree within six years of high school.
Andrade said that the Phoenix Union district has been working for many years to dispel two myths around college:
“’Can I afford college?’ The sticker price can give a shock,” she said. “And, ‘Can I get in?’
“We’ve done a lot of work around affordability and needs-based scholarships and working with the FAFSA, and we’ve made a lot of progress in the area of ‘Can I afford it?’“
And they’ve also worked with students to understand grade point averages, visit colleges and unravel the process.
“It’s so that our kids are as comfortable with it as much as they’re going to be,” she said.
“ASU’s letter was, to me, the icing on the cake of a long journey with lots of parts around college-going culture.”
The acceptance letters were the latest action in a years-long initiative to increase college-going in the Phoenix Union High School District.
In 2018, Phoenix Union and ASU collaborated on a simple flyer that was sent to all ninth graders, Lopez said.
“It was very nontechnical in the initial iteration. The idea was to inform ninth graders of admission criteria,” he said.
One side was printed in English and the other side was in Spanish. Lopez made a video with Chad Geston, superintendent of the district, to build excitement around college preparation.
“Our desire was to help set this expectation from day one of high school that they can do it. They’re college material, even on the first day of ninth grade,” Lopez said.
The students had access to resources such as ASU’s Me3 major and career planning platform, plus scholarship and financial aid tools.
“Most importantly, it was to keep them on track,” he said.
ASU and the district continued to send information to huge swaths of students, but the game changer in fall 2021 was the personalized nature of the acceptance letters, Lopez said.
“What really changed was that through a partnership with the Arizona Department of Education and the ASU-Helios Decision Center, we were able to utilize individual student data and make our letters individualized to the student,” he said, noting that each student’s data stays with the district, not ASU.
ASU is hoping to expand the initiative to other high school districts.
“We would love to scale this so that every student gets something like this,” Lopez said.
And reaching out to middle schoolers is important too.
“One hope is to start letters with eighth graders, because what we found is that with ninth grade, they’re almost a semester behind already because they’ve chosen their ninth-grade courses before they got the letters,” he said.
“In eighth grade, they can really think through ‘I need to take math, English, science, etc.’ and some of those, especially a foreign language or math, need to be sequential.
“If you get off track in math, it’s difficult to get back on track.”
Andrade said that the counselors in the district have always done a good job of working in the classrooms to help students navigate course selection.
“These letters spawned conversations in counselors’ offices and got kids asking the right questions to keep on track — ‘Do I need to take a foreign language?’ And they’re talking about it before it’s too late.”
Andrade said that not every student will choose to attend college right after high school.
“But that doesn’t change our mission,” she said.
“If someone decides to pursue a bachelor’s degree in their 20s, they’ll remember, ‘ASU wanted me.’”
Top photo: Palm Walk on ASU's Tempe campus. Photo by FJ Gaylor