Arizona State: A university tries to be both big and great

Associated Press • Mar 24, 2007 at 9:27 AM

TEMPE, Ariz. - Like the state it serves, Arizona State University is big, bustling and relentlessly new.

If colleges were countries, most would resemble the developed nations of the West - stable, working to improve but changing only gradually and growing slowly, if at all. Arizona State would be China. Its campuses are giant construction sites. New schools and programs spring up nearly every week. Hundreds of faculty are being hired, thousands of dorm rooms are being built.

There are 280 undergraduate majors, three separate schools of business, 32 on-campus dining options, and 601 student clubs.

ASU is a city in itself. With 51,000 students on the main campus, plus 10,000 more at three branches around Phoenix, it is already among the country's largest traditional universities. But unlike any current rivals for that title, ASU plans to keep growing - to about 90,000 students over the next decade. That would make it easily the largest university of its kind in the country.

Michael Crow, ASU's president, calls his school the "new American university" and sees it as the university of the future.

It's a model that takes on two challenges some see as conflicting: to be a great university, and to be an enormous one, with its doors open to a huge number of students with widely varying abilities.

Arizona, Crow says, needs ASU to be a great university, with top-tier researchers solving pressing local problems like water resource management. But it also urgently needs to expand access to four-year college degrees. The state's population is growing and diversifying, with a half-dozen new high schools opening each year. But there are just three public universities to accommodate the growth.

"This is a university on the front line of dealing with a 300 million-person America going to a 450-million person America," Crow says.

Schools in Mexico, Europe and Asia have enrolled 100,000 students or more, but traditional American ones have topped out at around 50,000, excluding multi-campus state systems and for-profit chains such as the University of Phoenix. Most have preserved a flagship campus for the strongest students and channeled growth elsewhere.

Crow doesn't believe quality has to suffer when a university scales up to this size.

"In higher ed, that's what people think is needed: to create this very grand school for the best, and give everybody else generic campuses," Crow says. "We're like, ‘Why?' "

And so, ASU is a place of extraordinary variety. There is a growing roster of high-profile faculty doing cutting-edge research, working alongside instructors in more vocational programs like golf-course management. There's an elite honors college for exceptional students, but it's set within the larger university that accepts 92 percent of its applicants.

Some critics says it's a fantasy to think a university can simply ignore the quanity-vs.-quality tradeoff.

"ASU will very clearly get worse, much worse, not better, so long as they keep driving the enrollment," says Geoffrey Clark, an anthropology professor and 35-year faculty veteran. He says the university is overcrowded and has sold it soul for corporate sponsorship. ASU could have become a distinguished public research university like UCLA, he says; instead Crow has turned it into "Cal State-Tempe."

"The new American university in my opinion is a fraud," Clark says. "You can't get big and good at the same time."

But even skeptics say that, if anyone can pull it off, it's Crow.

After holding senior administrative jobs at Iowa State and Columbia, Crow came to ASU in 2002 and has been a kind of educational Tasmanian devil ever since - building, recruiting, fundraising and lobbying, and generally kicking up the desert dust.

There's a massive new campus in downtown Phoenix. Eight news schools within the university have opened in the current academic year alone. There's a new Biodesign Institute that went from idea to functioning laboratory with 500 workers in just a few years - a pace unimaginable at many universities.

ASU has a strong record luring top students, too. Test scores are rising. This year's freshman class included 188 National Merit Scholars, among the most in the country. They are lured with sunshine and access to the small classes of the Barrett Honors College. And they're lured with money.

Of the cash ASU awards as financial aid, nearly 80 percent is given on the basis of merit - much of it for out-of-state students with good grades.

"After visiting MIT and Harvard I just felt like a number," said Cary Anderson, a junior from Apple Valley, Minn. "Then I found out I can go here for nothing - actually get paid to go to school."

Ambitious universities like ASU have faced criticism for spending too much money to attract bright students who improve a college's academic ranking, but don't necessarily need the money to attend college. Rankings are clearly important at ASU: In an unusual arrangement, Crow's contract includes a $10,000 incentive for boosting ASU's standing in U.S. News & World Report.

But Crow says recruiting top students improves the intellectual atmosphere on campus - and that ASU is still backing up its commitment to widen the gate. About two-thirds of ASU's financial aid, even if it's awarded for merit, goes to students with need. The number of students from the poorest families has increased by about 500 percent since 2002 while the number of black, native American and Hispanic students have all more than doubled over the last decade.

ASU's graduation rate is also improving, though still a problem. Only 56 percent of freshmen entering in 2000 had a degree by 2006. Rates for Hispanics (51 percent) and Native Americans (23 percent) are lower still.

One of the key factors in strong graduation rates is close attention from faculty. That's a challenge here.

ASU's student-faculty ratio is 22-1, and even then only 63 percent of faculty are tenured or tenure-track; the others are lecturers, instructors and adjuncts. Overall spending per student is low, largely because ASU has received comparatively little state support.

In the School of Life Sciences, Professor Ronald Rutowski says faculty are trying to give the 1,000 or so majors, plus students from outside the department, an engaging experience in the classroom. But capacity is crunched, with classes and labs oversubscribed and lecture halls in short supply.

"We're trying," he says. But "there's no question the demand far exceeds what we're able to offer at this point."

Honors college students get more pampered treatment and praise the ASU experience. Still, some say they have concerns about the scale of growth.

Adding 30,000 students is "too much," said senior Taylor Jackson, a senior from Hattiesburg, Miss.

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