Last month, my colleague Kai Campbell wrote about a form of optimism that combined realism about the issues facing higher education with an urgent commitment to inclusive action and a deep sense of hope for the future.
In reflecting on Kai’s prompt, I started thinking about where I’ve seen this approach in action – where higher ed leaders are tackling thorny challenges head-on and leading through collaboration, innovation, and inclusivity. Ultimately, I didn’t have to think too long because I had seen much of this on display during a learning trip visit to Arizona, I took with other foundation colleagues last November.
During our trip, we heard from campus leaders from across the state about many of the exciting initiatives they are advancing and the insights they are gleaning from pilot projects. At a time when there’s a lot of conversation about the polarities between 4-year degrees and short-term skilling, it was truly inspiring to see partners across Arizona – including high schools, 2-and-4-year colleges, and workforce organizations – finding ways to partner and utilize technology to streamline education pathways for students. This work is happening with a joint commitment to increase college attainment and economic value.
I could go on and on about the specific projects we learned about and the conversations I had with faculty and students, but there are three bright spots I want to call out in this note:
Northern Arizona University’s A++ Program: Since becoming president of NAU in 2021, Dr. Jose Luis Cruz Rivera has worked quickly to advance a community-wide vision for success rooted in creating economic opportunity and value for students, as reflected in the NAU Charter: NAU 2025 – Elevating Excellence. But NAU’s commitment to expanding opportunity for students isn’t limited to just their campuses.
Last year, NAU announced a new partnership with all 10 community college districts across the state and the Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA) to launch the Arizona Attainment Alliance (A++). This partnership will ensure that more students have access to an equitable and affordable education by creating a roadmap of measurable actions needed to achieve the state’s Achieve60AZ goal. This will include more cross-institutional approaches to enrollment and degree completion; strategies to strengthen the K-12 to higher ed pipeline, such as dual enrollment and pre-acceptance programs; and more shared services to better align career-advising and streamline credit transfer, among other approaches.
Maricopa County Community College District (MCCC): Made up of 10 separate accredited colleges that span nearly 40 locations, MCCCD has been transforming its systems and leveraging partnerships for several years – everything from redesigning developmental education to more recently partnering with Mesa Public Schools and the Phoenix Union High School District to expand an Advanced Manufacturing education pathway for students as part of the Accelerate Ed initiative, which is supported by the foundation’s Pathways team.
But what stood out to me on this trip was how they’ve invested in integrating technologies to create a seamless advising experience for students. Using scalable, reliable, secure, and low-cost cloud-based tools that include live voice and chat, the Maricopa ASSIST platform integrates data that used to live in siloes, allowing academic advisors and others to offer MCCCD students state-of-the-art advising from pre-enrollment and throughout their journey to a degree.
Arizona State University’s Credit Mobility Tools: Consistently ranked as the United States’ most innovative university, ASU has about 130,000 total students, of which roughly 55,000 are online. This is possible due to how ASU uses data, technology, and scale to connect various education systems and smooth out paths for today’s learners. During my visit with them, we took a look at the suite of credit mobility capabilities ASU has developed that establish a marketplace for students with some credits and significantly improve the process of transferring credits between institutions. From Interactive Degree Planner tools that let students plot various paths to a degree, to the “Pocket” version of their Trusted Learner Network, ASU is empowering students by giving them access to their own data and unlocking opportunities across institutions to improve credential mobility, credit transfer, and ultimately, college completion.
These are the types of student-centric innovations and projects I get most excited about – those that recognize the power of removing barriers that too often prevent students from making it to the finish line. It’s amazing what strong leadership, user-friendly tools, and collaboration can do to put students’ aspirations within reach. That’s what’s giving me a deep sense of hope for the future. How about you?
Director, Postsecondary Success