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Chad Gestson is the superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona.
Too many of our young bright minds are wondering if post-secondary education is in their future. Some have no academic credentials, others lack the confidence to be college stuff. Many simply see it as too expensive. All of this adds up to a stressful and uncertain time for both teens and parents.
These perceived deterrents have a profound impact throughout their lives. Most research shows that education greatly affects economic prospects, and a person with a college degree can earn hundreds of thousands more throughout their lives than someone who only has a high school diploma. This raises the question of what more our education system can do to increase access to this clear path of opportunity.
Our district at Phoenix Union High School believes we have an answer. Our school has created a program to make higher education more accessible by simplifying and demystifying the experience. By partnering with one of the top colleges in our state, Arizona State University, we’ve worked together to remove barriers, create a transparent and efficient process, and take away a lot of the stress.
The best part is that our high school students don’t even have to apply. The district submits the credentials of all of our graduating seniors to the State of Arizona. If they meet the admissions criteria, a GPA of 3.0, and certain coursework such as math, English, and laboratory science, the college automatically accepts students—no exceptions and no onerous applications.
The letter program began in 2018 when all incoming freshmen received a personalized letter outlining the route to college and explaining requirements. Early in their sophomore years and junior years, a progress letter would detail the credits each student had earned or what areas they were deficient in. If someone was falling behind, additional guidance was provided on how to remain eligible.
Fast forward to this year. The same 2018 freshmen received another letter, this time congratulating them on their admission to Arizona state college. Well over 1,000 students were accepted and nearly 700, and counting, chose to enroll at Arizona State next fall as a result of the program. More seniors than ever from Phoenix Union High are seeing their college dreams come true.
Although not every student covered the same distance, in the end they reached the same goal. Some have fallen by the wayside in recent years, while others wobbled slightly along the way but dug in to fall by the wayside. What is so meaningful is that without this constant encouragement, these children in the latter group might never have found their way down the right path.
An example is Javier Gonzales. Just a few years ago, he could never have imagined going to college. His family moved, and he struggled to apply academically, never fulfilling his potential. But the letter program pushed Javier to challenge himself, and he found his footing.
This fall, he will be the first in his family to attend college in the state of Arizona. This is a game changer for Javier and so many others, especially first generation students of color.
Most agree that higher education remains the most powerful driver of socio-economic mobility and the best antidote to inequality. However, rising college tuition is making college more difficult financially for middle-class families and those aspiring to enter the middle class.
But through a number of programs in our district, we are minimizing this obstacle to make college affordable and manageable. Through grants, scholarships, resources, and professional advisors, we strive to reassure students and families that cost is not the reason a dream is snuffed out.
The last few years have shown how powerful a promise can be for a young person’s self-esteem and self-confidence. This program has shown how effective an innovative initiative can be. By sowing the seeds early and letting these kids know someone has their back, we’ve expanded access to one of the most important ways to forge a better future.