On College Success: Five Questions with Aarti Dhupelia, National Louis University

We often hear about the need for students to get “college ready.” But with only one in five low-income students reaching college graduation within six years, what would it look like for institutions instead to focus on becoming “student ready”?

National Louis University (NLU) recognized that its students – primarily low-income, first-generation college-goers – weren’t persisting in college. With the creation of Pathways at NLU, National Louis University has reinvented the business model for undergraduate education, creating clear graduation pathways and robust student support both in and out of the classroom. As Pathways’ inaugural students enter their fourth year, we are supporting the expansion of its affordable, blended, and flexible academic curriculum as well as support services to follow them throughout the academic journey – so that students leave college with a degree in hand.

We recently spoke with Aarti Dhupelia, Vice President for Undergraduate Education and Dean of the Undergraduate College at NLU, about the Pathways at NLU model. Check out our conversation below, and don’t miss the full “On College Success” blog series here.

What drives your passion for education?

I am the daughter of immigrants who moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s, and they have a classic immigrant story of coming here with one suitcase and $50 in their pockets. My parents grew up in Uganda in East Africa and were well off, but they left everything during the Idi Amin era when all Asians were expelled from the country and all their assets were seized. I always share what they told me growing up: “People can take anything from you – they can take your car, they can take your house, they can take your money, they can even take people from you, but the one thing no one can ever take away from you is your education.”

Tell us about Pathways at NLU. How did the program get started, and what is your mission?

Pathways at NLU was started by Dr. Nivine Megahed, President of the University, responding to what’s truly a crisis in higher education. With low completion rates impacting so many students, we knew we needed to find a scalable solution – turning undergraduate education on its head and designing from the ground up, to serve a broader group of students who have been underserved. It’s not only the right thing for students, but also the right thing for society. From employers to individual families and communities, we have a moral and economic imperative to support students reaching college graduation.

Our degree program offers a bachelor’s degree at a significantly reduced tuition rate of $10,000 per year. This translates to zero out-of-pocket cost for low-income students who qualify for full federal and state aid, and these students make up 60 percent of our student population. We’ve designed the program for scalability and sustainability, focused on knocking down the financial barrier to college through our cost structure.

How does Pathways at NLU support students?

The instructional model is designed to be student ready: course scheduling that accounts for the reality of personal obligations outside of school, blending on-campus and online coursework; small class sizes with hands-on, active learning; and adaptive courseware that meets students where they are, allowing for data-driven instruction. Career preparation is also a critical component of our model, including career coaches, connecting students with internship opportunities, and career readiness curriculum.

Every student is assigned a student success coach: a one-stop shop for personal, academic, and career support. In collaboration with faculty, these coaches look at student performance data every week. When a student shows up as a red flag – missing a couple classes in a row, struggling academically, or facing personal issues – their coach reaches out to see how they can help. Coaches help students connect with a tutor or counselor, access emergency funds, or just talk through a challenge. With our data-driven approach, no one falls through the cracks.

What’s your vision for higher education over the next 10 years?

Higher education should be asking, how can we be more student ready? From the perspective of scheduling, support, curriculum and majors, how can we meet students where they are and ensure we’re incorporating best practices? As we look to maximize our relevance to students and to employers, we’ll see a push for more market-aligned curriculum, along with the use of technology for more convenient scheduling and support for students. A focus on being student ready will ultimately create more accountability for serving a broader population.

What is your message to others working in college completion?

Don’t focus just on affordability or just on completion, but the two hand-in-hand, solving for both access and completion. There’s much we can learn from one another in service of our students across the nation, so it’s important to continue sharing ideas.

The work is hard, but it’s doable – so let’s keep at it!