At Westwood High School, a handful of advisers spends long hours struggling to link their 2,300 students with colleges across the country. The campus is nestled within a neighborhood of aging houses and unadorned apartments in northwest Mesa.
A majority of those enrolled are minorities from poor families who give little thought to higher education, even when academically gifted, said Debbi Dutra, Westwood’s career center specialist.
College recruiters typically show up once or twice a year to give 30-minute presentations.
Then there is Matt Griswold, a recruiter from Arizona State University. He is at Westwood every week. He has an office on campus. School counselors can call his personal cell number.
Griswold is one of a different breed of recruiter that ASU has created to aggressively court students who must first be convinced to submit an application.
For the past two years, Arizona State has worked to build a pipeline between the university and 19 high schools in some of the Valley’s poorest areas. Seven of the targeted high schools are in the East Valley.
“Our goal is to change the culture of going to college,” said Mistalene Calleroz, assistant director of student initiatives at ASU. “And you begin by talking to teachers. The next part is parents; you can’t do it without the parents.”
Arizona’s Hispanic population is expanding far faster than any other group, said Kent Ennis, an economist for the state Department of Commerce.
Data collected for the U.S. Census Bureau show Hispanics account for more than half of the state’s growth during the first five years of this decade.
Many graduate from high school with good enough grades to get into ASU, but don’t even try to enroll at a four-year school.
Students who enroll at a university directly are more likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees than those who begin at a community college and transfer, numerous studies have found.
But for the students sought by Access ASU — a community outreach program — a university remains a foreign, unknown place.
“It’s not part of their family culture. It’s not a part of their community culture to attend a university,” Griswold said. None of their relatives went to a university; none of their friends plans to.
A large share of the state’s new residents fall into low-income categories.
That adds financial concerns to the cultural barriers and myths that scare away minorities from higher education.
“Regardless of their bravado, (every) student is nervous about going to a university,” Calleroz said. “When you’ve had friends and family members who have gone, they can reassure you.”
Looking at local high school graduation and college enrollment rates a few years ago, university officials found they were failing to serve thousands of the Valley’s minority students, said Jim Rund, an Arizona State vice president.
When the university launched the recruitment program, officials chose not to focus their sales pitches just on potential students, but also on their parents, teachers and principals.
Recruiters even help teachers write information about various professions and related ASU degree programs in the curriculum, Calleroz said.
Chell Roberts, director of the engineering program at ASU Polytechnic, has given tours to students from the targeted high schools. He demonstrates how varied a college education can be by shooting paper rockets over a campus construction site, using a contraption he had engineering students build.
Roberts also admits about 20 high school students into a freshman engineering class if they commit to Arizona State.
One recruiter is assigned to work at Phoenix elementary schools to get fifth-grade students thinking about college. “These students are hearing ASU a lot,” said Antonia Franco, the program’s director.
Though still in its infancy, the effort has already shifted demographics of the university’s freshmen class.
The number of minorities attending ASU from the targeted high schools has rocketed 48 percent since 2004. Minorities are on pace to make up half of all students that enroll from the Mesa, Tempe, Phoenix Union, Glendale and Tolleson districts in two years.
The number of minority students is slowly inching higher across the entire university. ASU enrollment data show minorities are 25 percent of the student body — up 5 percentage points from 10 years ago.
At Westwood, Mesa and Skyline high schools, Griswold is responsible for continuing to improve those numbers.
Griswold is one of two Access ASU coordinators who work only from the high schools from which they recruit.
Dutra, the Westwood counselor, said Griswold’s constant presence helped students get quick answers about what Arizona State requires of applicants.
“He would nail down the kids that had problems or that needed a little extra help, that might have been on the cusp of getting scholarships,” she said.
In one case last year, Dutra said a minority student with an A average made plans to attend Mesa Community College. The student wasn’t aware he qualified for a full state scholarship to ASU until the university scrambled to notify him.
“You’d be surprised how many kids don’t know,” she said.
Though pleased with the progress so far, Calleroz said the real test comes in two years. At that time the students that ASU first worked with as high school freshmen will have graduated and decided whether to attend a university.
No matter how successful, the program will never be able to declare its job complete.
“Our goal isn’t just to help the 12 kids in this school and the 10 over here and the 32 over here,” Calleroz said. “There are hundreds of kids, thousands of kids in the pipeline.”