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ASU personalized admissions letters put young students on path to college

Growth in program removing barriers for more high school students around the state

Young woman with glasses smiles

Angelina Baca, a first-year history major at ASU, received a letter in the fall of her senior year at Betty Fairfax High School in Phoenix. She had planned to attend community college but the letter changed her mind. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

April 30, 2024

National College Decision Day is May 1, and thanks to a program created by Arizona State University, more high school students in Arizona are on the path to a college degree.

The Personalized Admissions Project, launched by ASU in 2021, is removing barriers to college by simplifying the process: High school seniors who meet the admission standards get personalized letters telling them they’re accepted before they even apply, and the application fee is waived.

Currently, 27 public school districts participate, representing half the high school students in Arizona. Starting last year, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University also participated, so some students get acceptance letters from all three state institutions.

The letters, which include information on how to get financial aid, are huge motivators for students who might not have thought about attending a four-year university, according to Thea Andrade, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District, the first to partner with ASU on the project.

“There are two myths to college-going: One, ‘I can’t get in,’ and two, ‘I can’t afford it.’

“If we can debunk those two myths, that’s the difference of whether a kid can go to college or not,” she said.

Angelina Baca, a first-year history major at ASU, received a letter in the fall of her senior year at Betty Fairfax High School in Phoenix.

“At that time, I was expecting to go to community college and I wasn’t geared toward university,” she said.

“I was looking for the most affordable option and I wasn’t aware of the financial aid that ASU gives to in-state students.

“The letter was a push in the right direction for me. There are so many opportunities I didn’t know about.”

The project is critical because Arizona has a shortage of workers with college degrees. The state’s high school graduation rate and college-going rate are lower than the national average by 10 and 14 percentage points, respectively — but 65% of all jobs in Arizona require some sort of postsecondary education and training beyond high school.

Baca wants to be a history teacher, and receiving the acceptance letter changed her trajectory.

“I realized that maybe a four-year university was the right step for me, especially as a first-generation student,” she said.

“I have a passion for teaching that I didn’t realize I had until I applied.”

Letters are a game changer

The personalized admission program is a project of the ASU Helios Decision Center for Educational Excellence, a partnership between Arizona State University and Helios Education Foundation.

The project goes beyond simply supplying information.

In 2018, ASU and the Phoenix Union High School District collaborated on a simple flyer that was sent to all ninth-grade students, informing them of the requirements to get into college — a 3.0 grade point average plus the required courses such as math, English, lab science and a foreign language.

A few years later, Joseph O’Reilly, director of the Decision Center for Educational Excellence, was meeting with Andrade when she asked him, “We have kids that you would accept, but they’ll never apply, so why don't you just accept them?”

So the ASU Helios Decision Center for Educational Excellence worked with the Arizona Department of Education to evaluate data for each student. The data stays in the district, not at ASU.

In fall 2021, the first personalized acceptance letters were sent to 1,400 students in the Phoenix Union district. Two versions of the letter were sent. One version was an admittance letter for students who met the requirements, and of those, 53% enrolled at ASU. Another version was for students who were close to meeting the requirements, and 43% of those were enrolled.

Both versions have the letterhead of ASU and the school district, are addressed to the students and their families, and are in both English and Spanish.

“It was a game changer,” Andrade said.

“You see the seniors holding up their letters. Even if a senior gets that letter and says, ‘It’s not the right time,’ we’ve planted a seed that ‘You’re in.’”

The second year, 2022–23, the project expanded to 12 districts with more than 7,200 letters sent. About a third were admitted to ASU.

In the current academic year, 26 districts plus the ASU Prep charter system are participating. Nearly 11,000 letters were sent, meaning that about 13% of all high school seniors in Arizona received personalized admission letters. And the seniors roughly represent the demographics of Arizona: about 43% white, 43% Latino, 5% Asian, 4% Black and 2% Native American. About 41% are in lower-income families.

O’Reilly said that the top students will aim for a college degree, but the Personalized Admissions Project targets students who qualify but don’t consider applying.

“That that was really our motivation,” he said.

“And the districts’ motivation is getting kids thinking about going to the university, no matter what their background is.”

Luke Tate, managing director of the ASU Office of Applied Innovation, said the project is a matter of equity in Arizona.

“We’ve built this fabulously dynamic and diverse economy in this state and left our kids behind,” he said.

“We haven’t made it possible for our kids to fully participate in that success.”

In talking to high schoolers, he finds that those whose parents didn’t go to college often have no idea where to start.

“ASU might as well be on another planet for them,” he said.

So it’s important to reach younger high school students with personalized letters as well.

“Just to make sure we’re doing everything we can (for) young people, particularly those on the margins of not going to college, we begin with letters in 10th and 11th grade,” he said.

“They say, ‘Because of your success in these courses, you’re on a pathway to ASU’ or ‘You’re almost on a pathway to ASU, make sure you take these courses.’”

Diego Guerrero, a counselor at Douglas High School, said he appreciates that younger students receive the letters.

“Normally we might see students at the end of their junior year, but with the letters, sophomores are coming to ask if they’re taking the right classes,” he said.

“When they receive letters like this, it really does help with self-esteem and gets them engaged in the college-going process.”

'I was so excited'

Alexis Alba is the middle of seven children in a family that lives in Lake Havasu. He received an acceptance letter his senior year.

“The community at ASU Lake Havasu is close-knit and gives off small-town vibes and I already knew several people there. I was leaning toward ASU Lake Havasu but that letter made me think, ‘What could I do? How can I get the most academic experience?’ And that’s why I pushed myself to come here,” said Alba, who is majoring in psychology and sociology on the Tempe campus.

“Applying to college is always stressful, especially in a household where your parents didn’t go to college and you don’t have someone to help you,” he said.

“The letter opened the door for me and really motivated me.”

Alba said the application fee waiver “was a godsend to me.”

Young man with glasses smiling on a staircase
Alexis Alba, a first-year psychology and sociology major on the Tempe campus, received an acceptance letter his senior year in high school. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Ariana Romayor received an acceptance letter when she was a senior at Trevor Brown High School. Although she was earning college credits in high school through the ACE program, she worried about the cost of college.

“I was so excited and I felt the urge to tell everybody,” she said.

“The letter identified the next steps with FAFSA, what to expect and what to do next and that helped a lot,” said Romayer, who is a first-generation, first-year student majoring in automotive engineering at the Polytechnic campus and wants to design cars for Tesla or Lucent

“People need to know that getting that letter can impact you whether you go to ASU or not. It will motivate you to figure out what you need to do in life.”

Young woman sitting on the floor smiling
Ariana Romayer, a first-generation, first-year student majoring in automative engineering at the Polytechnic campus, received an acceptance letter when she was a senior at Trevor Brown High School. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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