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How Northern Arizona U. Is Tackling the Access and Affordability Gap

Episode 108

June 14, 2022 36 minutes


Northern Arizona University President José Luis Cruz Rivera talks to EAB’s Tom Sugar about creative approaches to narrowing the college access and affordability gap.

Under Dr. Cruz Rivera’s leadership, NAU is redoubling its efforts to enroll students from historically underserved populations across the state. NAU also announced plans recently to offer a tuition-free college education for every Arizona resident with a household income of $65,000 or less.



0:00:10.2 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. Today, we’re joined by Northern Arizona University President, José Luis Cruz Rivera. Dr. Cruz Rivera talks to EAB’s Tom Sugar about how NAU is working to solidify its reputation as a top-tier research university, while at the same time ensuring that the school fulfills its mission as a true engine of economic and social mobility for anyone in the state who dreams of earning a college degree. Give these two a listen, and enjoy.


0:00:49.6 Tom Sugar: Welcome to Office Hours With EAB. I’m Tom Sugar, Vice President for Partnerships here at EAB, and the leader of the Moon Shot for Equity. About one year ago, our guest today became the 17th President of Northern Arizona University. He was well prepared. Prior to his arrival in Arizona, he served as President of Lehman College of the City University of New York before serving as the executive vice chancellor and university provost of that 25 campus-wide system. It was during his time at CUNY when I first became aware that Dr. José Luis Cruz Rivera is a man on a mission. His leadership stood apart from many of the leaders I worked with during my time at Complete College America. And today, I consider him to be one of the most exciting new Presidents in America. He is truly a man who’s meeting the needs of this moment. Welcome, President Cruz Rivera.

0:01:57.5 José Luis Cruz Rivera: Thank you for having me, Tom.

0:02:00.0 TS: Delighted to have you here. I really want to capture, more than anything in our conversation today, Mr. President, what it meant to come into an institution like Northern Arizona and methodically reposition it to become, as you say, a preeminent… A preeminent engine of opportunity; a completely new focus, and I would say to our listeners, probably the best strategic plan I’ve read in the country is the new one at Northern Arizona University, Elevating Excellence. I recommend it to you. Look it up. But the thing that most amazed me, Mr. President, was how brief it is. I think it’s all of maybe 10 pages. Tell me why you took that very direct, concise approach as you… As you imagined a new vision for the institution.

0:02:55.4 JR: Well, it was really an attempt to make sure that early on in the 17th presidency of this great university, that we capture the aspirations of our university community in a way that would provide clarity as to where we were headed, what we would need to get there, and how we could work together. And so, based on three months of Presidential transition and what I had heard from the university community, I figured that we would be able to, in a very short order, transfer those ideas onto a document that would serve as a roadmap. And that roadmap needed to be something that would articulate our work for the next three years, not five or 10, so that we could build a strong foundation that then would allow us to really seek that bold and boundless future that this university was clamoring for.

0:03:48.6 TS: One of the first things that jumps out at me when I looked at the roadmap was the first page and the first two words, “the new”; “the new NAU charter”. And I thought, “Oh my god. He even went into the institution and changed the charter of it!” But I know there’s a backstory there, so tell me about that.

0:04:08.2 JR: Well, when I arrived at NAU, we did already have a strategic plan that spanned the years 2018 through 2025. So our first approach was, let’s look at this plan; we’re several years into it, and see what it is that we can further enhance for the next three years that will put us in a good position to meet bolder goals. And so, we started with that premise. We created a university-wide working group, with seven different groups that would be looking at specific dimensions of our work; representatives of the faculty, students, staff, and administration being part of the core team of each one of those efforts. And then we basically asked, what is it that we need to do in each of these seven dimensions of our work to really stand out, to really position ourselves as an engine of economic mobility and opportunity in the United States? And that we can really say, at the end of the day, that we have positioned ourselves as one of the nation’s preeminent purveyors of economic value and postsecondary value, if you will, in the country.

0:05:20.5 JR: So that was basically the charge, and in doing that, what we found is, after several iterations, that the magnitude of the aspirations articulated by the university community were not necessarily at odds, but were more ambitious than what our vision, mission, and commitment statements from the prior plan would suggest. And so clearly, there was an opportunity there to sort of reverse engineering the vision, mission, and commitment statements so that they better match the magnitude of our aspirations. And that’s how we came to, I think, in the third or the fourth graph, to identify the new NAU charter as an outgrowth of what our university community aspired to.

0:06:02.6 TS: Very good. And you are a humble servant leader, and your humility is coming across in your answer, and I know that you believe in collaboration and engagement across the institution. But still, you came into NAU, an institution that had a very different vision for where it thought it was going to go. And as I look across the country, I often see this playing out where, sadly, in too many instances, the notion of being the best of the best means being a Research One “institution”. And when you came into NAU, that was the aspiration before your tenure, correct? But now, you’ve readjusted that. Tell me how you keep… You keep an adequate focus on the importance of research, but then really double down on, as you said, becoming this engine of social mobility.

0:07:01.5 JR: I think most university communities will tell you that they are very much about excellence, and they are very interested in relevance. And so, when I came at NAU, when I had all of these conversations with various members of our internal community and external stakeholders: Our Arizona Board of Regents, elected officials, alumni, donors, etcetera, it became clear that there was a disconnect between where this university was headed and where folks really thought that we could have more impact. And that is to say, clearly, research is an important part of, and will continue to be, of our identity here at NAU, but we also realize that in a state that only has three major public universities, the Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, it was to the state’s benefit, perhaps, if we at NAU would embrace a mission that was more centered on broadening participation, expanding access, and focusing more on the support that we provide our students to complete, and of course, post-college outcomes. Are they getting good, high-paying jobs that will provide them with family-sustaining wages? Are they positioned for success in their careers? Are they getting into graduate schools that will allow them to meet their full potential?

0:08:28.1 JR: And so, that realization that we could be more relevant by being different than our two sister institutions really paved the way for how we frame this Elevating Excellence strategic roadmap. So while… As I was saying earlier, our charter was sort of a reverse engineering of our aspirations. The reality is that we launched the whole process with an understanding that we wanted to differentiate our mission and that we wanted to really focus on the concept of equitable postsecondary value as a driver, given the needs of the state of Arizona and our particular positioning within the higher ed landscape here.

0:09:12.9 TS: Yeah, but that’s some pretty tricky change management, right? You’ve got a faculty, administrators, staff, even student expectations of a different NAU than the one you’re trying to build and reposition. I guess I would say, you know, you’re redefining excellence in higher education and embracing this need in your state. Tell me about the change management approaches you took to bring people along and to build that consensus.

0:09:37.9 JR: Well, the change management was pretty much predicated on what this university values, and I keep coming back to the Presidential transition, because it was three months of very productive work, where I was able to really triangulate what the most productive areas of action would be for this university moving forward. And what I heard during that process was a deep commitment to preserving the distinctive… The elements of distinctive excellence of this university that has a 122-year history. And that is both in the teaching, in the community services, as well as in the research area. But also that there was a huge interest in going back to the teacher-scholar model roots of this university, which served it so well for many years, by allowing students, and opportunity undergraduates in particular, to have access to meaningful research that was regionally connected to the needs of the communities we serve. And that we do all of this with an understanding that in order to meet our full potential as a university, we needed to do it in a transparent and collaborative way. So those elements supported the change management strategy, which at the end was, let’s acknowledge that there are some distinctive elements of excellence in our research, and we will protect those.

0:11:03.3 JR: But rather than pursue the R1 status, we’re not gonna stand in the way of us becoming an R1, but we’re gonna redirect some of our biggest resources in terms of investments, which is the time, talent, and energy of our people, to ensuring that we’re meeting the access and workforce needs of today. And if I may, I can give you a little bit of the backdrop as to why I think that resonates. So here in the state of Arizona, we have one of the fastest growing economies in the country. The economy’s booming, thousands of new jobs coming in, billions of dollars of new investments… And so, there is a lot of optimism about how this economy’s going to continue to flourish in the years to come. But what is less talked about is the fact that seven out of every 10 of those jobs that are being projected into the future require a college degree. Yet in Arizona, we rank among the lowest in the country in terms of educational attainment, the percentage of adults with a college degree. In fact, studies suggest that a ninth grader in Arizona today only has a 17% chance of getting a bachelor’s degree by the year 2029.

0:12:19.6 JR: So when you realize that it’s the backdrop against which you’re operating, it’s not very difficult for a university like NAU that is very committed to the people and communities it serves to realize that we have an opportunity here to step in and step up and be that university that will ensure that those new jobs are available to the people of Arizona, and that they can contribute to and benefit from the booming economy. And so, with that backdrop, with our 122-year history, with the professed aspirations of our university community, all of those elements really facilitated, if you will, the change management trajectory in which we’re on.

0:13:04.0 TS: Very good, very good. I hear you saying jobs, jobs, jobs. And you know, that’s pretty refreshing. Not many university Presidents are really willing to… Oh, I see this at community colleges, certainly; that’s always been their tradition. But four-year leaders aren’t as bold as you are in talking about workforce outcomes as much as I’d like for them to be. I mean, I’m… Yes, it’s true, higher education needs to be about enlightenment, and growth, and maturity, and all of those sorts of things, which are extraordinarily valuable. But you seem to embrace the notion that you know your students are coming to you for a better life and have very specific outcomes in mind for their lives. Why do you see this so clearly, and why do you think some of your colleagues may be more challenged in that regard?

0:13:53.9 JR: I would say that from the standpoint of, at least, my experience in higher ed over the last 25, 30 years, you know, we’ve gone through several waves: The access wave, then there was the student success wave, “We gotta graduate them… ” And now we’re increasingly more focused on the value of that degree, so not only do we have to broaden participation, increase completion rates, reduce time to degree, narrow achievement gaps, ensure that our students are ready for the workforce, that they’re ready to be civically engaged citizens, that we push the frontiers of knowledge, that we enhance the cultural environment of the communities we serve, that… And we do all of this while keeping cost affordable for students and parents. Not only is that still an expectation of higher ed, but increasingly that in doing that, we are demonstrating that we’re adding value to our students in the communities they represent. And so the way you do that, of course, is by ensuring that the curriculum and the services you provide position our students well for those jobs of the future, and do it in a way that will provide them also those enlightened ways of looking at the world that will also make them happy and productive and engaged citizens.

0:15:19.8 JR: So I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think that perhaps in earlier waves, we would talk about… More on the sort of the general education, critical thinking, and communication skills, and all of that as things that would get you through life without necessarily focusing on job outcomes. And now, it’s both. In order to have good job outcomes, you also need those foundational elements in your education. In fact, that’s what you see the US Chamber of Commerce and every other boardroom across the country talking about, regardless of the disciplines in which they’re hiring. So I think there’s a lot of value in just acknowledging it, and saying that one of the ways we’re going to be measuring our outcomes as a university is not just by the diversity of the student body we serve, how many we retain and graduate, but also what our post-college outcomes look like. And that’s how we demonstrate value.

0:16:21.0 TS: Yeah, well, yet again, you’re redefining excellence, right? And really broadening the mission of higher education. I certainly share your view, Mr. President, that… It may be that the higher education sector will have more to do with what the future of this country looks like than any other sector I can think of, for all the reasons you just touched on. And you know, it reminds me of conversations I’ve had recently with community college Presidents who, as you know, are struggling with lower enrollment right now. One… I don’t know if the data is there yet, but one community college President posited that increased wages is actually depressing enrollment, because students, as you said, are looking at that value proposition, and suddenly, they’re able to make $17, $18, $19 an hour at jobs which probably don’t have very bright futures, but feel pretty good in the moment. And so, you know, it raises the issue about… Or it suggests I should ask you about the way you think about community colleges and your connection to them as a four-year institution.

0:17:32.3 JR: Community colleges are so important in our higher ed landscape here in this country. And I have the utmost respect for the work that they do, and we recognize… And I have said this publicly here in Arizona even, that our ability at NAU to advance our lofty aspirations depends in no small measure to how well we can collaborate and support our community college partners so that they can meet their goals and aspirations. Clearly, when we think about broadening participation and ensuring that each individual in the United States has an opportunity to meet their full potential, we need to have various pathways for students to do so. And without going all the way down to the K-12 and early childhood education, just focusing on the pathways that are afforded by our community colleges, the only way that we can ensure a higher educational attainment in our state or across the United States is that we have this tight connection with our community colleges.

0:18:47.7 JR: Clearly, the life experiences of many of the students that we are trying to serve in higher ed today are such that they would see value in getting that job first. But then, our obligation is to work with our community colleges to create pathways to bring them back when the time is right; give them credit for what they have learned in the workplace through their experience there, and then ensure that there are pathways for them to meet their full potential. Of course, speaking from a four-year institution with graduate programs, I would make the point that bachelor’s degrees right now, with some exceptions at the two-year level, will produce the better outcomes for most of our students, given the jobs of the future. And so I would wanna make sure that we have created those seamless pathways to get there.

0:19:49.0 TS: I’m gonna press that point a little bit, because I do really think that… You said, you know, we have these waves of reform. One wave I see coming, which I’m very excited about, is a growing chorus around the notion of reimagining transfer, reinventing transfer. In my conversations with Presidents across the country in the Moon Shot for Equity, when we talk about building ecosystems of higher education, and I began to talk about transfer, it actually got to be a point of irritation for me when their sort of reflexive answer was, “Transfer? Oh, we’ve got an articulation agreement for that.” As if a transfer is just so one-dimensional, when we know, of course, that it is cultural, it’s psychological, it’s financial… Give me some sense of how you think about this moment in terms of… You know, you said pathways, and we all have heard about pathways, and that usually means, for most people, you know, some articulation agreements and transferring of credits, which is certainly foundational, but are you thinking more broadly than that when you think about enhancing your relationship with the community colleges?

0:20:54.3 JR: Yes. We definitely need to have the basics, the fundamentals, such as articulation agreements and so forth. But I think we can and must do more. So for example, I would want to be in a place, not too long out in the future, where if a student applies to NAU, but is not ready for admission at NAU because of the… Perhaps, being shortchanged during their K-12 education, as we know tends to happen to a lot of our hardworking and talented students across the country, that instead of getting a letter of rejection, they would say “You are admitted to the class of 2024,” or, you know, two years out to the entering class of 2024, and “Oh, by the way, you can start your first two years at Coconino Community College.” You’ve already been admitted, because we have articulated our admissions processes as well, not just our program pathways.

0:21:50.1 JR: And that student knows today that they are a lumberjack. They just need to go to Coconino Community College; they don’t need to fill out any additional paperwork. You just do the… You know, the work, and we’re here waiting for you. And so that’s just a small operational or structural change. But from a messaging perspective, I think it says a lot. I wanna get out of the business of sending rejection letters and into the business of providing options, because if somebody gets to the point where they aspire to higher education, you have to then meet them where they are and give them the options so that they can meet their full potential.

0:22:34.5 TS: So well-put and, yeah, letter-like. That certainly begins to send those signals. I’ve, of course, as you know, been to Coconino, and they’re really across the street from your main campus. And making sure that main campus feels welcome to those students at Coconino Community College is so extraordinarily important. We look forward to working with you and to thinking even deeper. And how do we make them really feel like they’re just taking classes at Coconino Community College when they really are, as you said, already lumberjacks and… A whole body of work to do there, and a lot of innovation, and we intend to leverage the Moon Shot for Equity to help advance it. I wanna… You’ve always been a big thinker when it comes to higher education policy. And I’ve been thinking about this challenge that you have, you know, this notion that you came into an institution that was very much on a, you know, “To be excellent means we are an R1.” And, you know, I’ve been wondering, and I don’t know what the obstacles in the way of this would be, but maybe we need another designation. You know, you can be an R1, and that’s great. But you know, should we have a T1 for like excellence in teaching or something? And that’s not to say you can’t be an R1 and a T1, but how do we get to a place in this country where we really honor those? We’re making deep investments and aligning reforms to really create excellence in pedagogy.

0:23:56.3 JR: I think so, and I think there are some movements in that direction, with the Carnegie Classifications around economic mobility and such.

0:24:04.7 TS: Good.

0:24:06.2 JR: And so, definitely something I would be supportive of. I think that we really need to ensure that our classification systems are aligned with our broader goals for higher education, and that the various types of institutions that are doing important work in different lanes have an opportunity to be recognized for the work that they do. So one of the things here at NAU, for example, that we recently announced, which goes to how policy can help in the change management process, in realigning an institutional mission or direction, was the announcement of the Access2Excellence initiative.

0:24:54.7 TS: Please tell me more about that.

0:24:57.1 JR: Yes. A 122-year legacy of serving the people of Arizona, large populations of Native American students, we recently were designated as a Hispanic-serving institution, are well-known for our work with first generation students, etcetera, very affordable, high-quality education, yet there are large numbers of students and families across the state of Arizona that would not perceive NAU to be accessible or affordable, given the traditional ways in which we talk about tuition and fees, etcetera. And so, one recent announcement that we made was by taking a hard look at the way we package over $400,000,000 of scholarship aids every year, we were able to make some tweaks to that, so that we could just say upfront, we’re not… Not just say “We’re affordable, apply, and in a few months, you’ll get a letter saying how affordable we are,” but just letting people know, “Look, you know, if you’re in the state of Arizona and you come from a household with an income of less than 65k, which is about one out of every two households in Arizona; it’s the median, then you’re guaranteed a tuition-free education at NAU.”

0:26:12.3 JR: And so, that clearly sends out a very strong signal that yes, when we say we are about moving forward, the new NAU, not only about the distinctive excellence in several research areas that people have come to know us for, but also about ensuring that more people have access to those excellent programs. There’s no better way to say it than just coming out front, and with an initiative like this. Furthermore, we found out that there were about 20% of high schools in the state of Arizona that did not provide all of the courses that we were requiring high school students to have in order to get assured admission at an NAU. So we similarly came out and said, “Look, if you graduate from a… If you meet your high school requirements in Arizona with a 3.0 GPA, you’re assured admission at NAU,” so now we have a very clear messaging to the people of Arizona that hopefully will, in turn, also necessitate some more change management within the institution, so that once we get these students, we’re better positioned to serve them as they move along their educational trajectory.

0:27:25.8 TS: Wonderful. Yeah, branding, simplicity, messaging matters. There’s too much complexity in all of these things, and especially for students who are first generation students, you know, it’s daunting enough to think about putting it all together to go to college, and then to add all those unnecessary complexities on top of it just holds them back unnecessarily. So I applaud you for that as well. I wanna give you an opportunity to talk about something that’s sort of structural, I think, that our listeners will appreciate and be able to evaluate in their own contexts. And that was something that your board shared with you: The so-called three M’s in the approach to what you’re trying to do at NAU. You wanna unpack this for us, please?

0:28:08.4 JR: Sure. So, after being appointed as the 17th President and going through the various, you know, search process steps, and then the three-month process with our university community during the Presidential transition, we started putting some policies and practices in place that would set the foundation for the new presidency. And it was a few months into my tenure as President that one of the regents said, “Well… ” You know, sort of complimenting the work that the university was doing, “I think you’ve hit the three M’s that we were looking for.” And I had no idea what those three M’s were; they had never been, you know, articulated to me early on. And it turns out that the three M’s were morale, mission, and money.

0:29:02.7 JR: And so at least, while not explicit, at least implicitly, what several members of the Arizona Board of Regents were looking for in the new President was someone who could help lift the morale of the university community, that would be able to reposition the university within the landscape of higher ed in Arizona by a differentiated mission, and also that those elements of work were done in a way that would sustain the financial health of the institution moving forward. And I found it very refreshing, because those three M’s actually captured the synthesis of the things that we had heard during the Presidential transition process very well. Although I must admit that it would have been good to have heard that beforehand, as it would have facilitated a lot of the early work that we did. But to this day, it may have been an off-hand comment that was made about the three M’s. I still think a lot about that as I think about the change management that we’re doing here, because I think it does capture the moment.

0:30:15.5 TS: Very good. And, you know, the three M’s will see you forward that in the years to come. Let me take the last couple of minutes that we have left today, Mr. President, and address a couple of other issues that jump out at me. I’m absolutely thrilled by the special focus you’re bringing to serving your indigenous students in Arizona. I know that something that’s near and dear to your heart. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you approach that work?

0:30:42.1 JR: Well, the university has, for many years, been a leader nationally in terms of the number of Native students that it serves and how it engages with its local communities through engaged scholarship in other areas. We sit… Our Flagstaff campus, our Mountain campus, which is the flagship of our 20-or-so educational…

0:31:05.9 TS: A beautiful campus, by the way.

0:31:08.0 JR: Yes. Sites across the state, sits at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, in lands that have, for millennia, been the lands of native peoples here in the state of Arizona. And so, when you think about universities that want to be good stewards of place, universities that are perhaps regional in nature, but have a global outlook, it only made sense for our university to double down on a long-standing commitment to indigenous peoples, and in our current roadmap, we have identified several components that we really intend to invest heavily in so that we can, at the end of the day, say that truly, we are the nation’s leading university in serving indigenous peoples. We are fortunate of… Because where we are in this long history of service, that we have great advisors. The President of the Navajo Nation is part of my Native American advisory board; he’s an alum of NAU. The First Lady of the Navajo Nation is an alum. And we have leaders from the 22 federally recognized tribes here in Arizona represented, students from over 120 tribes across the country. So, it would be a crime not to embrace this opportunity to really get this right, and in doing so, not only better serving our local communities, but also perhaps creating a blueprint that other universities across the country could also benefit from.

0:32:48.9 TS: Thank you for your leadership in that area too. I’m very excited about some recent conversations that we’re doing with the University of Montana in the same field, and we certainly hope that we can dedicate a podcast in the future to tell more about that story. Well, let me wrap up this wonderful conversation today by getting your reaction to something I’m increasingly noticing and believing to be true as I have conversations around the country around the Moon Shot for Equity. And that is, you know, it really does feel like we’re at this… One of those rare moments where all roads lead to equity. All roads lead to equity; let me explain that. If you’re the Chamber of Commerce President, and you’re thinking about the future workforce for your community, and you’re looking at the demographic changes in our country, you know all roads lead to equity.

0:33:38.3 TS: If you’re a university President or a community college President and you’re just thinking about butts and seats and making sure you can sustain your institution, provide the good mission that it does, of course, but be financially sustainable, you have to better serve students who, most often, have been left behind. All roads lead to equity. If you’re a social justice leader, of course, all roads have always led to equity. This is one of those rare moments, it seems to me, Mr. President, where we can build, you know, sorta strange bedfellows coalitions to get things done, regardless of the political headwinds that we face today. How do you feel about all that?

0:34:15.8 JR: Well, I feel that certainly, it is… We’re at a crossroads, as you have just articulated, and it’s really an opportunity for all of us to come together and create some basic understandings from which we can build. I think one of the main challenges that we’re having as a nation right now, especially when it comes to issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in education, but let’s focus now on higher ed, is this fallacy that somehow, discussions of equity are at odds with better understandings around civic engagement and American institutions, when in reality, as you just pointed out in your references to the Chamber of Commerce, etcetera, we are… We have a rare opportunity right now to bring these discussions together in a way that will allow us to not only look at the traditional ways of thinking and looking at the world, but also the new and emerging ones, so that we can then, from those understandings and civil debates, get to a better place. I think that ultimately, the work that we’re doing, our ability or not to meet the moment in terms of these discussions will, to a large extent, determine how strong or not our democracy will be in the years to come. So there’s a lot riding on our ability to get this conversation right.

0:35:54.2 TS: So, so well said. Thank you for joining us today, President Cruz Rivera. It’s been a delightful conversation. More to come, and I’m sure all my listeners will agree with me that you clearly are a man who is meeting this critical moment. Thank you for your leadership.

0:36:10.5 JR: Thank you so much.


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