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Turning Potential Into Reality: APU’s Answer to College Access

by Caitlin Gipson | illustrations by Patrick Hruby

In a typical core theology class at Azusa Pacific University, biochemistry, business, nursing, and political science majors lean over Bibles, straining to extract the meaning from a passage in Luke. A common course like this gathers budding pastors, lawyers, scientists, and doctors—possible future world leaders, cure finders, and soul savers. The sheer potential in such a room inspires and, multiplied by APU’s 8,639 students, boggles the mind. These students stand poised to change the world, assuming, of course, that APU can get them in the door and keep them.

These tasks, making an APU education accessible and affordable to those who want it, and then retaining students through to graduation, pose a significant challenge. Nationwide, private colleges and universities, and increasingly public schools, find that students run into substantial barriers on the path to a college degree. As national focus on the issue increases, APU finds creative new ways to address access, affordability, and retention—a mighty task given the dismal statistics.

Priority of Postsecondary Education

The U.S. Department of Labor recently projected that in the coming decade, 90 percent of new high-growth, high-wage jobs will require some postsecondary education. When paired with data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grim picture emerges: the United States has dropped to 13th among 32 industrialized nations for baccalaureate attainment. A special report by the American Council on Education articulated the trend: “For the first time, the new generation of high school graduates is not surpassing the educational attainment of those coming before them.” The issue fires up policymakers. In his 2009 address to the Joint Session of Congress, President Obama set an ambitious goal: “By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” Later in the same speech, the president reiterated his concern for college access: “If you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education.” Doing their share, education-oriented foundations also identify degree attainment as a top national priority. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation states an intention to “double the number of young people who earn a postsecondary degree or certificate by the time they reach age 26.” The Lumina Foundation outlined a complementary goal to “raise the proportion of the U.S. adult population who earn high-quality college degrees to 60 percent by the year 2025, an increase of 23 million graduates above current rates.”

Facing Tough Economic Times Head On

The current economic situation adds another layer of complexity to an already difficult issue. A recent New York Times article pointed out that, while layoffs during a recession tend to fall disproportionately on the poor, they also fuel the desire for higher education. Nevertheless, lower-income families often have less money during a recession, which can pose a significant barrier to students’ access to and completion of a degree. Facing these challenges head on, Azusa Pacific University put into action multiple strategies to ensure the affordability of an APU education. According to David Dufault-Hunter, APU’s vice president of enrollment management, the first strategy focuses on the transfer student experience. “We recognize that one way to make private education more affordable is to attend community college first, incurring private school tuition for two years instead of four.” To facilitate the transition from community college to Azusa Pacific, APU formed a dedicated Transfer Student Taskforce. The group looks at all aspects of the transfer student experience to determine ways in which APU can smooth the transition, from curricular changes that allow students to transfer more units into major-specific categories, to assessing the sequencing of courses and waiving prerequisites. “Our goal is to understand the transfer process in order to become more transfer friendly,” said Dufault-Hunter. “We are looking hard at how we engage transfer students at the beginning of the conversation when they first consider APU, at enrollment, their experience in class, and their ability to graduate—we want to make sure that prerequisites and course sequencing facilitate degree completion in two years.” This not only allows students to enter the job market sooner, but it also addresses the issue of access for ethnic minorities and advances Azusa Pacific’s diversity initiative, which calls for “an intentional marketing, recruitment, and retention plan directed toward underrepresented Christ-centered communities at all levels of the university.”

Comparable in Cost to a Public School

The second strategy speaks to affordability. Universities can cover costs one of two ways: either using a discount rate (the percentage of tuition set aside to fund financial aid) or through the interest from an endowment. In response to the economic downturn, APU tightened its budget in other areas in order to increase the discount rate. Three years ago, the discount rate was 24 percent—now it is 30 percent, which translates to more money awarded in scholarships each year. Additionally, APU keeps tuition affordable by slowing the rate of tuition increases from the former 7–8 percent per year to the current rate of 4 percent. These changes, combined with APU’s drastically lower housing fees, actually make an APU education roughly comparable to that of a state school. In fact, recent research by the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU) indicates that slower graduation rates at University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) schools can actually make them more costly than their private counterparts. “You have to take into account lower housing costs (APU’s $7,000 compared to $14,000 at a UC), the average of $3,000 more in Cal Grant funds awarded to private school students, APU’s average of $8,100 in scholarships granted per student each year, state schools’ steady 30-percent-per-year tuition increases, and an average five-year state school graduation plan compared to APU’s four-year plan,” Dufault-Hunter explained. “All of these combine to make an APU education very comparable in cost to a public school.”

Engaging Students to Stay

Once students come in the door, however, what can APU do to make sure they stay the course and receive a degree? The university recently invested in several systems that will help staff members identify at-risk students and provide them with extra resources. The first, a predictive modeling program, ranks students based on their likelihood to come back, and allows APU to offer extra support to any that are on the fence. Additionally, a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system launched at the end of August. This communication system allows staff to communicate directly with students based on a full complement of characteristics. “The new CRM system will help us communicate with our students in a manner that is specific to their needs,” said Sandy Hough, M.Ed. ’97, APU’s director of retention and student engagement. “Perhaps students in certain groups have more trouble than others; this program lets us segment our students into different audiences, such as by year in school, specific degree program, ethnic background, on-campus versus off-campus status, etc. Then we can create a communication plan to help them succeed. Once we understand their unique characteristics, we can provide encouragement, link them to events, make them aware of academic services, pair them with faculty mentors, or address financial concerns.” October 2008 exemplified this type of intervention in action. In response to the economic downturn, the university created the APU Support Fund, which set aside an additional $200,000 in student aid. APU President Jon R. Wallace, DBA, issued a message for at-risk students to contact the university with their needs. More than 200 students responded and received funds ranging from $500 to $5,000. As a result, the undergraduate retention rate from fall 2008 to spring 2009 improved. The university repeated this endeavor in September 2009 when $175,000 resulted in the retention of 88 students who would otherwise have dropped out. “This was a way that we connected with the families of our students,” Wallace said. “It allowed us to hear what was happening, pray for their situations, and offer practical financial help where needed.”

Looking Toward the Future

While these significant steps take APU further down the road toward the goal of access, affordability, and retention, Dufault-Hunter has a vision for the future. “We need to find ways to change our pricing model so that we can meet students where they are financially.” To that end, the university may consider dual-credit programs for high school students, where they could take an APU curriculum at a deeply discounted rate online or with a high school faculty member. This type of program could allow high school students to enter APU with a year of credits already completed, reducing their years in college, and thus their financial burden, by 25 percent. Online education models also hold significant promise. “Someday, we’d like to offer a menu of possibilities for people who want an online degree at a much lower cost,” said Dufault-Hunter. “I think that is where education is headed. Students want to have multiple options in terms of delivery and the ability to create their own hybrid degree programs, mixing and matching face-to-face and online delivery.” Does this completely replace the traditional undergraduate experience? Dufault-Hunter doesn’t think so. “College is a rite of passage that will always be valuable, and the APU experience specifically is much bigger than the coursework we provide. The traditional model will remain, but at the same time, we are ready and willing to accommodate ways that we can support a variety of people.” Dufault-Hunter and his colleagues will continue to find ways to remove barriers to access, affordability, and retention so APU can fulfill its mission to equip those businesspeople, cure finders, and policy makers. Azusa Pacific will do what it takes to get them in the door—even a virtual one—in order to send them out with a degree, ready to fulfill their potential and to change the world for Christ.

Caitlin Gipson '01 is a freelance writer, search engine optimization specialist, and marketing consultant in Reedley, California. caitlinsplace@hotmail.com

Three years ago, the discount rate was 24 percent—now it is 30 percent, which translates to more money awarded in scholarships each year.
Dufault-Hunter and his colleagues will continue to find ways to remove barriers to access, affordability, and retention so APU can fulfill its mission to equip those businesspeople, cure finders, and policy makers.

Originally published in the Fall '10 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).