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ASU's expansion into California seen as rare step for a public state university

Students get accessible, hands-on learning opportunities in Los Angeles tailored to the area's industries as part of President Crow's expedition to spread the ASU brand


ASU's expansion into California seen as rare step for a public state university

Students get accessible, hands-on learning opportunities in Los Angeles tailored to the area's industries as part of President Crow's expedition to spread the ASU brand

To succeed in today's higher education landscape, ASU President Michael Crow sees one path forward: "Innovate or fail."

It's a mindset that has helped guide his now 20-year tenure — the University has set record enrollment numbers, it's formed new partnerships with businesses big and small and used its real estate to make money. Now, the University has opened campus locations outside Arizona's borders — a decision, particularly in California, that challenges the status quo of a public higher education institution.

Experts say the center is a rare move for a public university. But in Crow's eyes, Los Angeles shined gold with possibility: He saw a city with global financial influence, a uniquely stark demand for more schooling options and endless ventures for University partnerships. 

READ MORE: ASU begins official welcome events for newly opened California Center

Through hosting study abroad programs and over 140 undergraduate degree programs for California-based students, the ASU California Center creates personalized academic opportunities for all kinds of students. Doug Lynch, a senior fellow at USC's Rossier School of Education, said the center is an example of Crow's ambition to create a model blurring the lines between prestigious research university and easily accessible regional school. 

The center houses a Cronkite News bureau for ASU's journalism students, a chapter of the University's Sidney Poitier New American Film School and a space program for Thunderbird School of Global Management students. 

ASU Local brings mentorship and flexible academic options for LA students rooted in their communities, whether for financial reasons or out of personal preference. These students pay ASU Online non-resident tuition rates and have access to scholarship opportunities. This year, ASU lobbied the California Legislature to allow students to access federal financial aid like Pell grants. 

READ MORE: ASU spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying in California

Since public universities rely on state government funding, these institutions tend to not create in-person degree programs for students located outside their home state. However, experts say out-of-state programs like those housed in the California Center are fairly common among private universities, as nonprofit funding allows more independence. 

Along with shrinking appropriations for state colleges, competition among American universities has tightened due to drastic declines in enrollment since the pandemic. In California, the competition is especially fierce, but with the opposite problem: An abundance of students are fighting over limited availability. 

Robert Kelchen, head of the University of Tennessee Knoxville's Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department, said ASU's presence in California helps meet the demand for higher education.

"California … doesn't have a lot of public universities, and the ones they have haven't been willing to grow to meet demand," Kelchen said. "Arizona State famously is growing quickly and will accept most students who apply."

ASU has tackled obstacles in enrollment and funding through expansion. The University receives almost half of its funding from tuition. By providing more avenues for incoming ASU students to enroll, the more money the University could potentially make from tuition without having to raise the cost

The University has also pursued expansion within the state of Arizona as a medium for corporate partnerships and academic opportunities. In addition to developing satellite campuses to house more students, Crow has spent some of his 20-year tenure leasing ASU's tax-exempt land to large companies.

READ MORE: How President Crow found a way to fund and expand ASU through real estate

While time will tell the true impact of ASU's expansion, higher education professors posed the question of how much ASU's out-of-state pursuits will benefit the majority of students who still reside in and attend school in Arizona. 

Lynch, the fellow at USC, said one could argue that increasing ASU's brand recognition will bring resources into the state. But as someone who worked under former ASU President Lattie Coor, Lynch said expansion may drive ASU's focus away from serving Arizona communities. 

"What happens to Lattie Coor's vision of, 'We need to be serving all the folks in Arizona, particularly the folks of color in Arizona?'" Lynch said. "In all this expansion, how much of it is sort of increasing the number of Navajo or Hopi or Apache kids going to ASU?" 

Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said the expansion process "raises some questions" about ASU's ability to "overshadow" universities inside and outside of Arizona.

"My general perspective on this is that anything that is increasing competition between institutions has a way of not benefiting students in a way that we would like," McClure said. "It does a better job, I think in some cases, at benefiting the institutions that are winners of that competition."

This overshadowing could include taking away program and research opportunities from other schools in the LA area, said Zoe Corwin, a research professor in higher education at USC.

"You never want to overburden the community partner with too many partnerships," Corwin said. "So if ASU is coming in and forging all these relationships, and taking away from previously established relationships or potential relationships, that could be a problem."

Crow told The State Press in October it was not his intention for ASU to compete with California schools, but rather to "build a presence" by establishing programs for ASU students that are well-tailored to the LA area.

The center is the most recent development in Crow's efforts to bring ASU into global cities, or urban areas considered "the pulsing heart of the American economy." Wellington "Duke" Reiter, a senior advisor to President Crow, said these cities were chosen strategically. The University also has an out-of-state presence in Washington, D.C.

Pedestrians walk past the ASU Barbara Barrett and Sandra Day O’Connor Washington Center, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.

"Washington is about being close to the agencies and seats of government, where we can influence decision-makers in a positive way," Reiter said. "I would say that's the primary reason for being in D.C., but then journalism, law, all the other (programs) are also housed there."

Since an ASU center was planted just blocks away from the White House, the University has earned grants, written contracts and built partnerships with federal government officials, Crow said during the October meeting with The State Press. In addition to several University policy centers placed in Washington, ASU has an Office of Government and University Engagement that represents University interests on Capitol Hill.

In Washington, ASU worked to build an influence while a center was created, and in California, the University had left its mark far before the LA center had even been built. The University has owned offices in Santa Monica since 2013, has almost 52,000 alumni in California and has over 18,000 degree-seeking students originally from California. 

Even though ASU continues to accept California students, Lynch said California schools do not need to be intimidated by ASU's presence. In fact, Lynch and other higher education professors said more higher education options tend to benefit students and universities in the area.

"If ASU can offer a better course, or better degree at a cheaper price, or serve students that other schools aren't serving, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing," Lynch said. "My sort of thing would be focus on what you're doing and improving the quality of your offering and outcompete ASU."

Stett Holbrook, spokesperson for the University of California system, echoed this sentiment, writing in an email that "Californians should have access to a range of educational opportunities" and ASU has not impacted plans to open that access. A spokesperson for the California State Universities wrote that the CSU system "continues to provide Californians with a high-quality education at an unparalleled value" and is looking to increase enrollment. 

Reiter, Crow's advisor, said ASU's presence in California is intended to benefit the city of Los Angeles in addition to providing students with opportunities to explore their industry of interest. Efforts to ensure this has been done are made by facilitating meetings with now-outgoing LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, Reiter said. 

"We looked at the programs, schools, colleges degrees that we offer, and which ones align with the needs of the city," Reiter said. 

California Center brings potential to already open doors

Lynch said higher education is a "magical thing," especially when universities create opportunities for students to experience new places.

"Back in the day, there was a big bump in going to an Arizona university if you worked in Arizona," Lynch said. "But if you didn't work in Arizona, it was kind of like, 'What's ASU?'"

Cronkite News bureaus outside of Arizona have especially benefited developing journalists in experiencing a variety of communities, said Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication Dean Battinto Batts. The experience in LA includes a partnership with the Los Angeles Times

"Whereas Washington provides a great opportunity to learn about covering government and policy, public policy, LA is really such a vast opportunity to cover people, communities, culture, arts, sports — you name it," Batts said. 

As one of the "global cultural capitals of the world," Los Angeles also facilitates a "hustle of creative energy" for students in ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, said the school's dean, Steven Tepper. Journalism students are also included in the creative process through the center's narrative and emerging media program, where they can incorporate virtual reality technology into storytelling.

"They've got a network in LA, they've got to have access to the experts who can come in and guest lecture and teach our classes," Tepper said. "They have to collide with some of the global ideas that are coming out of LA that will inspire their own creative work."

Program manager André Fernández of the Thunderbird School of Global Management said Los Angeles provides "full accessibility" to people in the space industry. This has included visits to NASA research facilities and guest lectures and speaking sessions featuring people in leadership positions in the industry.

Peter Murrieta, a professor of practice and deputy director for the Sidney Poitier New American Film School, said students can come to the California Center to get a taste of the film industry by taking classes and working in an internship. He said he encourages his students to think of his classes as "a beginning."

"The idea that I didn't come from much money, and the leap of faith I had to take that I was somehow going to make a living doing this was amazing," Murrieta said. "I want to encourage people to take that leap and bet on themselves." 

Connor Eaton is one of Murrieta's screenwriting students. As someone who switched into film from sports journalism, Eaton said he has been inspired by Murrieta's work. In addition to taking classes at the center, Eaton works in an internship at a talent management company where he analyzes scripts. 

"There's always the worry about if you're actually going to get a job and (if) there's going to be opportunities for you," said Eaton, who is a senior. "But when you get here and you talk to the people that actually made it, you see why there are people on the sidelines, and there were people who haven't quite cracked into it yet because there are others that are just working harder, producing more." 

Compared to his tenure at the American Film Institute, Murrieta said ASU has a significantly more diverse and driven set of students. 

"I'm very excited that we are very representative of the community that we're in already," Murrieta said. "ASU, I think last semester, was named a (Hispanic-Serving Institution), which requires them to have not only a certain student population, but to have a faculty-student ratio, and we exceed that in the film school." 

ASU Local Director Taylor Pineda said since the program provides online and in-person options, it facilitates a college experience that is accessible and tailored to the needs of homebound students. 

"It really is that true hybrid experience where students get the benefit of being able to have internships, be able to pursue passions, take care of family responsibilities and obligations, but also can have an in-person community, which is really key for our students in LA," Pineda said.

However, for those joining the California Center for a semester, Eaton said the opportunities come with a price. To cover costs of living, students in Cronkite News LA can receive a housing scholarship and stipend for the semester, in addition to getting their travel covered by the University. 

"It's got a bit of a price tag, but it seems like everything that's decent has a private price tag these days," Eaton said. "It really gets your foot in the door better than anything else you can find."

With some ASU deans blueprinting plans and aspirations for more programs and growth at the California Center, there is still room for higher education opportunities. The University is "just beginning to scratch the surface" of the California Center's potential, said Rick Naimark, ASU's associate vice president for program development planning.

"ASU has a unique personality in that regard, in terms of our ability and willingness to be able to scale our programs to reach people all over the country and all over the world," Naimark said. "Many universities just don't have that in their DNA."

Clarification: This story was updated on Dec. 19, 2022, at 5 p.m. to indicate Peter Murrieta is also the deputy director of the Sidney Poitier New American Film School.

Edited by Piper Hansen and Wyatt Myskow.

Reach the reporter at and @WaissAlexis on Twitter.

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Alexis WaissAssignment Editor, Senior Reporter

Alexis Waiss is an assignment editor and senior reporter, covering breaking news and writing long-form stories. Alexis worked on SP's politics desk for a year, where she reported on the Legislature, higher education policy, student government, the city of Tempe and stories highlighting social justice. She previously worked as a fellow for the Asian American Journalist Association's VOICES program. 

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