José Luis Cruz Rivera, president of Northern Arizona University, has homed in on a workforce-development issue that’s challenging his new state. While scores of employers are expanding into Arizona and hiring workers, the state’s level of education attainment, which is the percentage of adults who complete education after high school, trails the national average.
Cruz Rivera wants to address this gap by adding credentials, executive education offerings and graduate programs to reskill and upskill Arizonians to position them as job candidates for the region’s growing economy.
The former president of Lehman College, part of the City University of New York system, is also focused on ensuring NAU, which is a designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, is a leader in diversity and inclusion practices.
Cruz Rivera, who took the helm of NAU this summer, recently spoke with The Business Journals about his plans for the public research university, including strengthening relationships with employers to build career pathways for students. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Could you talk about your efforts to make NAU more equitable?
Northern Arizona University’s faculty and staff have a long history of support for diversity, equity and inclusion, and we have high aspirations as to where we want to take the university. And as part of that work, we are trying to frame our entire strategic-planning process for the next three years from the standpoint of becoming a national leader in equitable postsecondary education. What that means is that we have to be very intentional about how we think in terms of our recruitment of students to ensure they have an opportunity to access a university like NAU. We’ve been intentional about the way we invest in support services that will be culturally responsive and will take into account the specific needs of the students that we do admit. We want to provide them with the learning outcomes and experiences that will position them well for a career with family-sustaining wages.
What strategies have worked at NAU to address obstacles that students face?
There are many best practices across the country that are used to advance this mission. What typically sets one institution apart from another is the quality of execution. We look at how we interact with the K-12 system. We have a footprint in many middle schools and high schools across the state (and) we interact with our community college partners to make sure that students have clear pathways to the university. (We also pay attention to) how we message to the general public, and parents in particular, about the value of a NAU degree and the affordability of it. Then we have peer mentoring and specific programs for first-generation students, for Native American students, for students that may have come from underserved backgrounds so that they can succeed.
Could you talk about enrollment strategies? NAU’s enrollment fell about 3% from fall 2020 to fall 2021.
It’s a multi-pronged approach. We’re particularly focused right now in looking at how we message the admission requirements and how we communicate our financial aid strategies. Students may be self-selecting out of applying because they feel that they do not meet the academic standards or perhaps they feel they may not be able to afford NAU. We want to ensure they have all of the information available to them. For example, we’re looking at our admission standards from the perspective of how well they align with what’s actually being offered in our high schools. There are many schools across the state that may not even have the choice to take a particular course that is required for admission. So, how do we align that? There’s also a perception that the cost of attending NAU is sticker price (rather than the) net price. Wee want to be more transparent and let the people of Arizona know that NAU is not only high value, but it’s very accessible and very affordable. In fact, the average Arizona resident admitted (pays) average tuition of about $2,500 a year, which is far below the quoted sticker price of around $11,000 a year. (Additionally,) how do we make sure that we’re not only optimizing enrollment opportunities in Flagstaff, but also having 20 sites across the state? There is a lot of growth opportunity there and in our online programs.
How have recent enrollment declines impacted the university’s financial standing?
We are fortunate that with the various Covid-related aid packages that universities across the country have received, we are fairly stable and our financial health is strong. As we move forward, of course, enrollment is a big piece of our sustainability. So, we are looking at increasing enrollments and trying to bring that back to pre-pandemic levels. Our graduate programs have been increasing throughout the pandemic.
How is the university building relationships with employers to ensure students land good-paying jobs after graduation?
One of the first things we did with our new presidency that started just six months ago was put together a team that’s been working on a master plan, if you will, of our workforce-development strategies, focusing particularly on the 20 sites outside of Flagstaff and their local economies and emerging workforce needs. We’re particularly concerned with the fact that we’re seeing thousands of new jobs coming into Arizona but we’re still 49th out of 50th in educational attainment. If we want Arizonans to get access to these great jobs that are coming in, we need to really figure out how to organize our academic programing across the state in ways that will position residents for these new jobs in short order. So, that means really having an understanding of where the opportunities are for our workforce development and where the skill gaps are and how our programs can come in and fill that that gap. That means bachelor’s degrees, master’s and doctorates, but also short-term credentials. That will help accelerate progress in these communities.
Are there any current relationships with employers that you would want to replicate or model others based on?
I’m thinking about prior experiences, having been here just for a short while. At the City University of New York, one of the projects I was involved with is the New York CEO Council, we brought 27 CEOs, led by Jamie Dimon from JPMorgan Chase, together to make a bold pledge of 100,000 new jobs in New York City by the year 2030. They then worked directly with the City University of New York to look at a forecast of where those jobs would be and where the (educational) gaps were. We put in place the people and the processes that would allow us to ensure that graduates from CUNY had a clear pathway to these new jobs that were being created across the city. That sort of convening of employers, taking an inventory and doing a gap analysis and then putting action behind it is something that we’re looking to do here in Arizona.
What do you see in store over the next few years for your online operations?
The pandemic has certainly accelerated the faculty and staff’s ability to embrace online as a means of successful and effective pedagogy. We’re looking for ways in which we can expand those programs. And, as I said earlier, also figure out a way to accelerate our offerings in credentials and certificates that have market value that will help not only target recent high school grads, but also their parents. The only way that we can really elevate the educational attainment in Arizona is by focusing not only on the 18-to-22-year-olds, but also focusing on the adult workforce to ensure that they have the skills needed to get those higher-paying jobs that are coming. So, we will be looking at how we can take the learnings from the past couple of years in terms of online delivery and support services and expanding them into new workforce-development areas. There’s also new opportunities for us to consider executive graduate certificates.
What are your top priorities moving into 2022?
The spring will be the culmination of a transition year into a new presidency. We hope to have a clear vision for the future with our new strategic roadmap. We hope to have new investments in place and new revenue sources that will allow us to power those strategies forward. And we hope that by the end of that semester, we’ll be at a place where our enrollments will be projected to increase into the fall. Also, (we intend for) equitable policies and practices that are needed to propel students forward are in a place where we have a lot of momentum behind us.
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