Chad Gestson is superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona.
Too many of our young, bright minds question whether a postsecondary education is in their future. Some don’t have an academic role model, while others lack the confidence that they are college material. Many see it as just too expensive. It all adds up to a stressful and uncertain time for teenagers and parents to manage.
Those perceived deterrents have a profound impact over the course of their lives. Most research shows education strongly influences one’s economic prospects, and a person with a college degree can earn hundreds of thousands more over their lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma. This begs the question, what more can our education system do to increase access to this clear path of opportunity?
Our district at Phoenix Union High School believes we have an answer. Our school launched a program to make higher education more attainable by simplifying and demystifying the experience. By partnering with one of the top colleges in our state, Arizona State University, we have collaborated to eliminate barriers, create a transparent and efficient process, and alleviate much of the stress.
The best part is our high school students don’t even have to apply. The district submits transcripts of all our graduating seniors to Arizona State. If they meet the admission criteria, a 3.0 grade-point average and specific course credits like math, English and lab science, the college automatically accepts the students — without exception and no onerous applications.
The Letter Program started in 2018, when all incoming freshmen received a personalized letter that outlined a path to college and explained the requirements. At the beginning of their sophomore and junior years, a progress letter would detail the credits each student had earned, or in what areas they were deficient. If someone had fallen behind, additional guidance was provided describing how to stay eligible.
Fast-forward to this year. Those same freshmen from 2018 received a different letter, this time congratulating them on their college admission to Arizona State. Well over 1,000 students were accepted, and nearly 700 and counting chose to enroll at Arizona State this upcoming fall because of the program. More seniors than ever from Phoenix Union High are witnessing their college dreams become a reality.
Although each student didn’t share the same journey, they reached the same destination at the end. Some remained on track throughout the last few years, while others wobbled slightly along the way but dug in to stay on track. What’s so meaningful is those kids in the latter group might not have ever found the right path without this steady encouragement.
One example is Javier Gonzales. Just a few years ago, he never imagined himself heading to college. His family moved around, and he had trouble applying himself academically and never fulfilled his potential. But the Letters Program pushed Javier to challenge himself, and he found his footing.
This fall, he will be the first in his family to attend college at Arizona State. This is a game-changer for Javier and so many others, especially first-generation students of color.
Most agree higher education remains the greatest driver of socioeconomic mobility and the best antidote to inequality. However, rising tuition costs are making college more financially difficult to attain for middle class families and those who strive to get into the middle class.
But through a series of programs in our district, we minimize this obstacle so college can be affordable and manageable. Through grants, scholarships, resources and professional counselors, we are dedicated to reassuring students and families the cost will not be the reason a dream is extinguished.
These past few years have demonstrated the power of what a promise can have on a young person’s self-esteem and confidence. This program has proven how an innovative initiative can be so impactful. By planting the seed early and letting these kids know someone has their back, we have expanded access to one of the most important paths to forge a better future.