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How the U of A is recruiting more local, underrepresented students

Nadia Rodriquez, Sunnyside High School’s school relations and senior coordinator, helps Sunnyside senior Brizeyda Gil with her application for the University of Arizona’s New Start Summer Program. The UA has partnered with Sunnyside School District to help recruit low-income and first-generation students to the UA by helping students apply for college and navigate the financial aid process.

College didn’t feel all the way real to Eddie Barron until he took a tour of the University of Arizona this March.

He’s got good grades and an interest in government and policy, but hadn’t thought much about college until last fall — his senior year at Sunnyside High School. Barron grew up down the road from the University of Arizona, which is a nationally competitive public research institution with many resources to help him achieve his personal and career goals, but figured it was out of reach.

“It can be intimidating,” he said. “And I didn’t know how I would pay for it.”

Over the past several decades, the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities has risen sharply nationwide. The estimated sticker price for one year of attending the UA as a full-time, in-state undergraduate living on-campus — an accommodation often cast as an essential part of the so-called real college experience — was $31,150 for the 2021-22 academic year.

Numbers like that initially scared Barron, who will be the first in his family to attend a four-year university when he starts at the UA next fall.

“Growing up, I’ve had to be my own advocate,” he said. “Because my mom didn’t go to college, it’s been tricky and difficult to find out about the resources that can help.”

But this year, Barron found support through a partnership the UA has with Sunnyside Unified School District. Now, he’s got most if not all — he’s still waiting to hear back about one more scholarship — of his expenses covered for next year.

The partnership is called Sunnyside CATS, which stands for Connecting for Access and Transition Success. It started about three years ago with the goal of recruiting more students from the school district, where 83% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, to the UA. The university offers several need-based scholarships that can drastically reduce the cost of attending the UA, but the students who need it the most aren’t always aware of those resources or how to obtain them.

Financial aid key

To combat that, the UA has hired two employees to work inside the district’s two high schools throughout the school year. They work with students in grades 9-12, and not only help them prepare to apply to colleges, but navigate the often-tedious process of finding the money to pay for it.

Pandemic notwithstanding, it’s working.

According to the most recent data available from the district, 25% of graduates enrolled at a four-year college in fall 2020, which is an 11% increase from 2019. In fall 2021, that number leveled off at 21%. As of this spring, 337 total seniors from Desert View High School and Sunnyside High School have been accepted to the UA.

The majority of those students, if they attend the UA, will rely on one or more of the income-based financial aid packages available to students at Arizona’s flagship public university. The CATS partnership that helped them navigate the financial aid process is part of an intentional effort to diversify the university’s student body, of which about 27% are eligible for a federal Pell Grant intended for low-income college students.

Seniors from Sunnside High School tour of the University of Arizona campus on March 3. The UA has formed a partnership with Sunnyside Unified School District aimed at recruiting more marginalized students. Sunnyside seniors received a special tour and learned more about what resources are available to help them succeed in college.

Sunnyside students once on their own

“Higher education has historically excluded low-income students and students of color,” said Karina Salazar, an assistant professor of higher education at the UA. Her research shows that public college recruitment efforts have historically focused on out-of-state students from affluent, predominantly white high schools.

“Often, we hear a lot of claims about the mission to provide equitable access to low-income students and students of color,” she said. “It’s time for these practices to reflect those values.”

It was Salazar’s own academic research and experience as a graduate of Sunnyside High School that pushed the creation of the CATS recruitment partnership, which she hopes will expand to other districts.

Like Barron, she was an involved student with stellar grades and solid test scores. But, when it came time for her to apply to the UA about 15 years ago, there was no visit from campus recruiters or help with navigating the financial aid process. Instead, she recalls how she and a group of friends “struggled through the financial aid process together” and considered herself “lucky” to have ended up at the UA right out of high school.

But Salazar wants to see this generation of students living in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood where she grew up feel wanted by colleges — especially the big one down the street. So, she presented her research about the biases in college recruitment to administrators from SUSD and the university, and the CATS partnership launched its pilot year in fall 2019.

That happened one year after the UA became a Hispanic Serving Institution, which is a federal designation for public universities with 25% or more of its students identifying as Hispanic. With that designation, the UA says it’s “committed to responsively meeting the educational needs of our vibrant and increasingly diverse communities of Arizona.”

“Money where their mouth is”

But the students and educators who live in some of those communities can be skeptical of big institutions’ intentions of carrying out mission statements like that.

“I was starting to question if the UA was making serving its local communities a priority,” SUSD Superintendent Steve Holmes said. But seeing the partnership in action over the last three years and the boost it’s brought to the college-going rate for his students has renewed his hope. “They’re putting their money where their mouth is. The faculty we have in service are giving us some real boots on the ground here.”

Holmes saw the partnership come full circle this year after learning that two of Sunnyside High School’s brightest seniors, twin sisters Daniela and Gabriela Soto, didn’t have concrete plans to attend a four-year college.

“I didn’t really know too much about college or how to go about getting there,” said Daniela Soto, who along with her sister, will be the first in her family to go to college. That milestone, however, meant their family couldn’t offer much insight into the application and financial aid process. So Holmes made a few calls and introduced them to Nadia Rodriguez, the coordinator of the CATS partnership who keeps an office at Sunnyside High School.

“She’s really helped us with applying for scholarships, FAFSA and all the other opportunities out there. She’s always checking up on us and having meetings to make sure we’re on track,” said Daniela Soto, who plans to join her sister at the UA after graduation. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think we’d be going to the UA next year.”

They have both received enough financial support to pay for the full cost of attendance and have no plans to take out student loans.

Rodriguez’s presence at SUSD’s two high schools helps fill in the gaps for the district’s counseling staff, which is responsible for thousands of students, and shows high schoolers that the UA is interested in bringing Sunnyside students to campus.

“That visibility makes the University of Arizona seem more approachable — like a school they could actually make happen,” Rodriguez said. “They’re so physically close to the university, but that idea of attending such a large public institution often doesn’t seem attainable to them. Having someone like me there, who seems easy to approach, has made it easier for these students to say ‘Hey, I can actually attend the UA.’”

While Rodriguez’s big focus is preparing high schoolers to get their foot in the door at the UA for an affordable price, she’s also working to make sure they have a smooth transition to college life.

She’s coordinated specialized tours of the campus for admitted students to connect them with other SUSD graduates already attending the UA, as well as with other on-campus resources like Think Tank tutoring center, which employs staff who are prepared to help first-generation college students navigate the quirks of college.

The other week, she gave a presentation to a class of Sunnyside High School Students about New Start, which is a summer program designed to help first-year students get acclimated. Of course, she also told them how they could apply for financial assistance.

Eddie Barron, a senior at Sunnyside High School, asks a question during a tour of the University of Arizona campus.

Visibility matters

After three years of success, the CATS partnership is continuing to evolve.

Last year, the UA hired a part-time coordinator of student relations, Felisia Tagaban Gaskin, who focuses specifically on supporting and recruiting Indigenous students in SUSD.

The barriers to accessing higher education for indigenous students, Tagaban Gaskin said, start in K-12.

“The lack of a presence of Indigenous educators and Indigenous scholarships make it difficult for our students to see themselves represented at those levels,” said Tagaban Gaskin, who identifies as Diné and Tlingit. “Bringing visibility to Indigenous students and their families is crucial to the success of native students as they pursue higher education pathways.”

This spring, she has been working one-on-one with high school students to help them figure out a plan post-graduation, whether that includes college, trade school or joining the workforce. She’s also focused on elevating financial support for the CATS partnership and putting weight behind the university’s pledge to support the academic success of marginalized students.

So far, it’s paying off. Last month, the UA Provost’s Investment Fund announced that it had awarded the partnership a $36,050 grant to further its mission.

“When we call ourselves Land Grant Institution, a Hispanic Serving Institution, or when we say we’re on the territory of native peoples, that then should be followed by a commitment to serve native students and marginalized populations — not in word only, but with actual funding and programming,” said Tagaban Gaskin.

“This could be the beginning of other doors opening.”

Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her via e-mail at or her new phone number, 520-496-9010.

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