Gary Francisco Keller Ph.D.

Latino students advance at ASU despite recession

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Higher education has been a stodgy stalwart for the last 1200 years, but a good crisis usually works wonders – we have not seen this kind of turmoil since the original Movimiento Chicano. The University of California system president stated in November that tuition for California residents will go up by “32 percent over the next two years—from $7,788 to $10,302.” Outraged students at Berkeley, UCLA, and elsewhere occupied campus buildings. A crisis is brewing that appears to have legs.

Tuition has gone up at ASU and everywhere, but not like in California. The California budget crisis makes the financial “San Andreas Fault” visible to the naked eye, but the University of California has been in difficult straits for years now. In contrast, the academic environment at ASU has gone straight up since 2002, when Michael Crow took the presidential helm. The achievements and enthusiasm are palpable at ASU. On November 11, 2009, Time magazine named Michael M. Crow one of “the 10 best college presidents in the United States.” Similar magnitudes of praise or leaps in national/international rankings have come from Forbes, Newsweek, Nature, U.S. News & World Report, and elsewhere.

One could argue that’s swell, but what does it have to do with the price of masa harina? Did the Time citation make reference to any Crow achievements related to Latinos? Did it even mention Latinos? Not specifically, but Time did state that when Crow took office he would “build a New American University that embraced students with a wide range of backgrounds and abilities while giving elite public schools a run for their research money.” The latest summary of ASU’s accomplishments states up front, “We measure ourselves by who we include, not who we exclude. We are committed to the belief that no qualified Arizona student should be denied access to a college education. . . .”

In 2003, the Arizona Board of Regents directed that resident undergraduate tuition be no higher than 33 percent of the average tuition at all the senior public institutions in the 50 states. Five years ago, in 2004-05, ASU tuition for residents was $4,062. In 2009-10 it is $6,840. To be decided for next year in March 2010, tuition will surely rise but is already lower than the University of California. The tuition gap will widen to the relative benefit of ASU students.

A popular phrase goes around the country that a crisis can provide us with “a teachable moment.” We have a crisis and it is centered on tuition. What’s the teachable moment? Follow the tuition money without preset assumptions. Just because tuition has increased does not mean that opportunities have declined for financially challenged students. Before Michael Crow’s presidency nearly eight years ago, ASU’s tuition was at rock bottom, but far fewer Latino students came to ASU and higher proportions dropped out. Even Latino students with Regents scholarships fell by the wayside. ¿Por qué? Was ASU charging too little? After all, there is a huge differential in the tuition of public and private colleges. Currently, tuition at public universities averages $4,694 compared with $19,710 at privates. The tide changed from 2002 to 2005, when ASU saw an astounding 488-percent growth in the number of enrolled first-time freshmen from Arizona families with income below $18,850. This is counterintuitive to the fact that tuition has more than doubled since spring 2002.

Tuition was low last decade; scholarships were few and mostly only covered the low tuition. There was no money for the inspired programs that ASU now has. The teachable lesson is that good financial aid and support programs trump tuition. Ironically, higher tuition has made it possible for more minority students to attend ASU. In the last 15 years, freshman enrollment among Latinos has grown by more than 144 percent, with comparable increases in other minority groups. And since 2003, ASU has granted $70 million in financial aid, a 189-percent increase. When it works like income taxes, more money goes to financial aid and academic support. Tuition increases can strengthen a university, enhance diversity, and greatly help poor students. But it is imperative to get this word out to the Latino community so they are not frightened away by tuition increases that don’t actually hurt them. This is where those inspired support programs come in.

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