In an era when college tuition is skyrocketing, government funding is plummeting and operating costs continue to soar, how can students remain afloat? The path ahead for the modern student is icy at best, littered with several menacing obstacles. How can colleges and universities prevent the metaphoric ocean liner that is the student from colliding into the collective $1.56 trillion pool of existing student loan debt?

As far as Arizona’s higher education institutions are concerned, many are coming to the aid of students by facing these challenges head-on. Strategies are being implemented in pragmatic, proactive and aggressive ways to help dismantle student-loan debt — along with additional obstacles to higher education.

In talking with leaders from Arizona State University, The University of Arizona, the Maricopa County Community College District, Galvanize, and Grand Canyon University, it’s clear that when it comes to the proverbial iceberg threatening educational attainment, it’s time to develop full-steam-ahead solutions.

Breaking the ice

According to research, approximately 69 percent of students from the Class of 2018 took out student loans, graduating with an average debt balance of $29,800. Collectively, Americans owe upwards of $1.56 trillion in student loan debt (spread across 45 million borrowers).

Student loan debt is currently second only to mortgage debt, exceeding credit card and auto loan debt.

“Over the last 20 years, tuition rates across the country have steadily increased by nearly 240 percent, according to a 2017 report by U.S. News & World Report,’” says Patricia O’Brien, chief operating officer for Maricopa Corporate College.

Thankfully, Arizona is among the lowest average debt states when it comes to student loans. Even though the average student loan debt in Arizona is slightly lower at $23,967, it’s clear that big change is required to thaw what has become an icy economic climate for Arizona students.

Before melting the ice, can we answer how as a nation we arrived at what is being referred to as a “student loan debt crisis?” Local university and college leaders agree that there are several reasons we have entered an educational ice age, which include:

•  A misunderstood modern student economic trajectory: Gone are the days when a majority of Americans earned a steady bi-weekly check. Presently, more than 40 percent of Americans regularly see large swings in their income.

•  Lack of class availability for specific degree tracks, which in turn extends degree programs, adding to the average time and money it takes for students to graduate.

•  An increase in nontraditional college students — typically students over the age bracket of 18-22 — who must balance school, steady employment and family commitments. It’s estimated that 74 percent of American undergraduate students are considered “nontraditional.”

Experts in Arizona’s education system agree that the paradigm of the traditional versus nontraditional student is one of the most predominant areas in need of change.

“Many students do not have the time to be away from their homes or the money to be away from their jobs to attend college in the traditional four-year burst,” says Dr. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.

“Finding the time to pursue a degree only adds to the barrier of affordability and further complicates the path to higher education,” O’Brien adds. “Increasingly, students are delaying college due to these socioeconomic barriers, forcing many to let go of their college dream and hopes for a sustainable career path.”

“In the past, education and careers often followed a linear path, where school finished and the job started,” explains Diana Vowels, general manager of Galvanize. “Now, to remain competitive in the workforce, employees must be life-long learners, consistently expanding their skills to remain valuable. Educators and employers need to support that approach and provide flexible programs to meet student needs.”

While antiquated educational structures are in need of alteration to meet the demands of nontraditional students, there are additional intricacies that must be addressed.

“Universities must do a better job of ensuring that higher education remains affordable for all socioeconomic classes of Americans,” says Brian Mueller, president of Grand Canyon University.

“Students whose parents did not attend college do not have the same support network as students whose parents did attend college,” adds Crow, “First-generation college students, and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, need additional assistance in order to have the confidence and skills they need to be successful in post-secondary studies.”

Defrost on high

Recognizing the problems that come with a new generation of complex and diverse student needs is the first and most important step to thawing icy economic glaciers that have become barriers to higher education. To effect change, higher education leaders must be willing to enact rapid and proactive change. And in Arizona, they are.

Here’s how local colleges and universities are accommodating the dynamic needs of contemporary students:

Arizona State University

“At ASU, we are advancing an approach to Universal Learning which integrates online learning, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, game-based learning, entrepreneurship, public and private sector partners and global alliances to design accessible education pathways for students of all learning levels at any point in their lives,” Crow says.

ASU has seen great success with the “American Dream Academy.” The eight-week program is designed for parents and future college students to unite their schools and communities to prepare for a successful university career. Enrollees in the American Dream Academy learn from ASU leaders how to become effective partners with their school and how to be effective champions of their child’s educational journey. The initiative has yielded 44,000 parent graduates to date.

Grand Canyon University

“GCU has been able to freeze tuition costs for 11 straight years on its ground campus, with only nominal increases in online tuition, by recognizing that there are two large markets in higher education: traditional 18 to 22-year-old students who attend a ground campus and mostly working-adult students who attend online,” says Mueller. “By creating a hybrid campus that leverages a common infrastructure between those two student bodies, we have created tremendous efficiencies that have allowed us to offer low tuition rates.”

GCU has bolstered advantageous undergraduate and graduate degree programs to address labor shortages and offer high-wage employment opportunities to students who graduate. These career pathways offer off-campus and real-world experiences closely monitored by a faculty member. This includes the largest pre-licensure nursing program in Arizona and a cybersecurity degree program.

Maricopa County Community College District

“Affordable tuition and fees are one of the most important decision-making factors for students. Tuition and fees for our classes ($85 per credit hour and on an average annual cost of just $2,500 for full-time students) are considerably lower than those at other four-year universities and private colleges,” O’Brien says. “In the 2015-16 fiscal year, more than 24,000 students transferred to Arizona State University alone. The seamless pathway to four-year colleges and universities save students and families time and significant money in obtaining a college education.”

MCCCD offers Guided Pathways and Integrated Student Support to provide fully developed, clear and intentional mapped programs that align with career advancement. MCCCD’s partnerships with ASU, NAU and UofA, as well as more than 40 public and private institutions in the U.S. and abroad, help to outline specific courses that put students on track to obtain bachelor’s degrees.


“Galvanize is a learning community for tech, founded on the premise that industry and education are stronger together,” Vowels says. “Galvanize campuses offer immersive programs in software engineering and data science, where students are learning in an environment where startups and large corporations house some of the most innovative employees.”

Galvanize programs offer students in-person and remote options. Support includes mentoring, career services, mock interviews, workshops, networking and events to help students successfully navigate the job search.

University of Arizona

“We are working with faculty to build learning experiences that engage students in solving authentic challenges into general education and major courses,” says Kasey Urquídez, vice president of enrollment management and dean of undergraduate admissions for the University of Arizona. “We are also developing micro-credentials that support students in demonstrating and articulating the most important core skills, such as collaboration, problem-solving and professional communication. These can be earned as part of a student employment position, a course or a co-curricular internship readiness program.”

UA offers students a variety of resources from comprehensive tutoring services in ThinkTank, library resources online, Scholarship Universe (a comprehensive scholarship match site), as well as personalized support from their enrollment and advising counselors from the time they inquire through to graduation.

Unobstructed pathways

Although each college and university has nuanced strategic differentiation, their educational offerings include one similar component: robust online degree programs and classes. These online programs are increasing student options, providing flexibility and chipping away the likelihood of student-loan debt.

“Our many online certificate and degree programs provide flexible options for students on a national level,” O’Brien says, “allowing students the opportunity to continue working or managing other responsibilities. Several of our colleges, including Rio Salado, offer online courses with multiple start dates throughout the semester for added convenience and flexibility.”

Despite the expansion of online degree problems and their potential to diminish student challenges, there are still some issues that require careful navigation.

“Traditional and non-traditional schools must embrace online learning to make education more accessible to all,” says Vowels. “Cost, time factors and flexibility need to be part of the equation. Putting programs online is the easy part; creating online or blended learning programs with the same effectiveness and outcomes as in-person programs are the real measure of success.  All schools strive for this, but none of us have perfected it yet. It’s improving, but not there yet.”

“ASU is a world-class research university with more than 4,000 top-tier faculty producing state-of-the-art knowledge in hundreds of subjects,” Crow says. “Online education is one channel of distribution for that knowledge, which provides learners with greater access and more flexibility. I’m not nitpicking. The vocabulary we use is very important, particularly when we are talking about the kinds of students who take advantage of online learning. Many of them are nontraditional students and what we are doing at ASU is to say loudly and clearly that online students are not second-class citizens and that online curriculum and instruction is just as rigorous and engaging as learning on campus.”

The transition out of any ice age or stormy seas takes time. If, however, we are to capture an important takeaway from Arizona’s university and college institutions, it’