A college graduate photographed after receiving her diploma

Expanding Access to a Bachelor's Degree for More Students

Checking in with two leaders blazing paths to equity in higher education

Countless students in California and nationwide face real barriers navigating to and through college.

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There is no question that what happens in November will have huge implications when it comes to education policy and investments at all levels of government. This year’s problems with the Federal Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) are a sad reminder of what’s at stake, as countless students in California and nationwide are facing real barriers to finding financial aid and navigating their way to college.  

With research commissioned by the Haas, Jr. Fund highlighting glaring racial inequities in who obtains a bachelor’s degree in California, I thought now was a good time to check in with two of the Fund’s core College Success grantees about these issues. The focus of our conversation: how a bachelor’s degree remains out of reach for so many Black, Latino, and Native American students—and, more importantly, what we can do about it.  

Many thanks to Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, and Maria Anguiano, executive vice president of the Learning Enterprise at Arizona State University (ASU), for taking the time to chat.  

Our Personal Journeys to and Through College

Monica Martinez: What a treat it is to be with two other first-generation college graduates, all of us from Mexican American families, to talk about this important issue for California and the country. I want to talk about how both of you are blazing paths for equity for all students here in California, but first can you share your own college stories?  

Michele Siqueiros: When I think back, I felt lucky I had a counselor who helped me fill out my financial aid application, and who told me to tell my mom I needed her taxes to complete the FAFSA. I also felt lucky that I ended up getting into the colleges I applied to, but more so that I got the kind of aid that made it a reality. What I know now is that it isn’t luck, it’s having resources, counseling, good financial aid policies and everything else that makes college a reality for low-income first-generation students like me. 

Maria Anguiano: I have a similar story. I decided to go to the school that gave me the most financial aid. And I, too, was one of the lucky ones to Michele's point. Maybe 20 students out of my high school went on to a four-year college. And I think one of the reasons I'm so passionate about this work is that it wasn't because any of the other students in my school weren't ambitious and smart. They just didn't have access to the financial aid and counseling assistance I had. It’s important that these resources be available for all our students, not just the ones with the highest GPA.  

The Problem: Disparities in Access

Monica: Our research at Haas Jr. shows vast differences in access and graduation rates across California’s three public higher ed systems. It also shows that community college is increasingly the default option for students from low-income families and students of color, but huge numbers of these students never transfer to a four-year institution. How do you think about who has access to a bachelor’s degree in California and who doesn’t?

Michele: I was attending UCLA as a graduate student when California banned affirmative action in college admissions in the 1990s, and after that there was more than a 50% drop in the percentage of Black and Latino students at the state’s four-year public universities. Thankfully, institutions were able to get those numbers back up over the years that followed, but we still have a long way to go to achieve real equity.  

When you look at a state as diverse as California, Latinos are the single largest ethnic group with 40% of the state population. And yet, bachelor’s degree attainment for Latinos in California stands at just 15% of adults. We need more Latinos to go to college and graduate. We also need more Black students to go to college and graduate, and more Native Americans and Asian Americans too, given the huge disparities in attainment rates across different Asian American ethnic groups.

Solutions: Innovative Policies and Practices at ASU

Monica: And then it’s a matter supporting more of those Black, Latino, Native American, and Asian American students to find the support they need to get a bachelor’s degree. Maria, ASU is a real innovator in this area. Tell us about some of the ways you are really shaking things up?

Maria: One really important component of ASU is our commitment to inclusion. There’s a seat at the table at ASU for every learner. We measure our success by who we include, not who we exclude, and that approach has had a huge impact.  

In addition to our ASU full-immersion and ASU online programs, ASU has created a hybrid college experience called ASU Local. We are currently at Long Beach Community College, in Los Angeles, and at Arizona Western College in Yuma, Arizona, and we are being supported to open one in Chula Vista, which is approximately 5 miles from the Mexican border.

ASU Local embeds the ASU experience within a community. Students choose from 160 high-demand, flexible online programs while receiving high-touch onsite professional coaching with a tight-knit cohort of peers. Personalized one-to-one support helps students navigate college and career, and meeting in person regularly with their peer cohort deepens their sense of belonging and community. Every student gets career development opportunities, ensuring they can apply their skills in real-world scenarios.  

And the coach is the secret sauce to making this program work. Coaches oversee a caseload of 35 students, and students are expected to meet with the coach four to six times per semester. They receive support with guidance on their career, academics, navigating the online tutoring systems, and navigating ASU resources. We also focus on providing workshops that develop skills to complement what they’re learning in their classes such as creating a resume, developing an elevator pitch about who they are and what they want to do, and connecting with a network.

Solutions: Changing Institutional Practices

Monica: It’s a really impressive range of supports, and that’s why Haas Jr. and other funders have decided to invest in your model. Michele, what can our public college and university systems learn from models like this?

Michele: ASU Local is a real leader on issues of access and one-on-one student support. And over the last several years, many California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) campuses have also expanded their approaches for supporting students. A good example is how colleges and universities are expanding their student success centers where first-generation and low-income students can find tutoring and peer support and other supports to help them persist and make their way through these four-year institutions when they might have dropped out before. That’s a trend we've seen across many campuses.  

The key in this work is reducing the time to degree for students. Because the longer it takes, the more likely a student might drop out and the more it costs them. One way we’re tackling this is by making it easier and more straightforward for students to transfer from community college to a four-year institution. In 2010, California passed the Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) program, which ensures that students transferring from a community college to a CSU campus have a clear pathway and arrive with junior standing to the university. That really helped more students find their way to CSU schools, and now we are pushing the UC system to do the same thing.  

What Funders Can Do

Monica: The problems with the FAFSA this year have been so frustrating for students and families, and for all of us who care so deeply about these issues. At Haas Jr., we’re supporting a number of groups that are working to make sure students complete the FAFSA despite the current difficulties. In addition to addressing access to financial aid, what is your message to philanthropy in this moment about how best to support more students to find an affordable and accessible path to a bachelor’s degree?

Maria: One of the reasons we started the Learning Enterprise at ASU was to create a beacon for what's possible. The world-class knowledge of ASU can be within reach for all learners now, at all life stages. Funding these programs and learning experiences that make high-quality courses and comprehensive support more available can help our other systems say, “If they could do it, maybe that's something we need to be looking at.” And so, I think higher education needs those models out there that are always pushing the envelope about what's possible.

Michele: I agree. California has done some really good things to try and support more students to succeed, but we have a budget deficit and now some of that progress is in doubt. That’s why we’re supporting students to have more of a voice on these issues. It’s crazy that students are so often left out of these discussions about higher education policy, even though everything revolves around them and how we can support them to succeed.