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Their Story – Rich Nickel

July 29th, 2015

Their Story - Rich NIckel

This is the third installment in a series of articles featuring the Board of Directors of College Success Arizona.

College Success Arizona is a 501(c)3 educational foundation founded in 2005, to increase the number of bachelor’s degree holders in the state of Arizona by providing scholarships and College Success Services to high potential, low-income students. The vision of College Success Arizona is to create an educated workforce ready to take Arizona into the future.

These articles are designed to give a more personal insight into each of our Board Members, to give them the opportunity to share why they care so deeply about Arizona, college attainment, and the mission of College Success Arizona.


1. Please tell us a little about your background.

“I went to school at the University of Kentucky and graduated in the summer of 1990 with a degree in telecommunications. In college, my dream was to be a radio or television personality; so my first job was a country music DJ at a small local radio station in Frankfort, Kentucky. I worked there for about three years before my wife suggested that I get a “real” job.

I became interested in the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA) and found that it was a state agency that felt like a business; this is what started my path into student financial services. I started out there as a data analyst. After a few months, I was given the opportunity to expand KHEAA’s business to other states. I served as the vice president for Bank One’s Student Lending Operation and lead a sales team that worked with schools on the eastern half of the United States.

In 2002, I was recruited by Vince Roig to help him run all business activities at Southwest Student Services, which was a large Arizona-based student loan secondary market and servicer. I later went on to work at Sallie Mae for five years before becoming the President and CEO of College Success Arizona.”

2. What does your organization do? What do you do within your organization? What are your responsibilities?

“The number one thing College Success Arizona is known for is providing a great scholarship program for low-income, high-potential, students who really need to be in the workforce pipeline. It would be a tragedy if the students we give scholarships to did not have access to higher education here in Arizona just because of their income level, so we’re helping them get there.

However, providing access does not necessarily mean they’re going to graduate; so we‘ve spent the last 9 or 10 years developing a program we call College Success Services, which is our mentoring program.

As the CEO and President, I know that I represent College Success Arizona every minute of every day; and I like it that way. This issue of college attainment cannot be lived part time. My day usually consists of phone calls, emails, or meetings with supporters of the organization, strategic meetings with partners about furthering our mission, speaking on the issue of college attainment all around the state, and taking part in other collaborative efforts. In addition, I am responsible for ensuring it stays stable and in a good financial state.”

3. What other projects, activities, groups, are you involved in?

“At this time, I am involved as a new Board Member of the Arizona Town Hall. I serve on Arizona Student Financial Aid Task Force, and am part of the National College Access Network (NCAN) task force on simplifying the FAFSA and promoting college enrollment activities.  I also help lead an ad-hoc group called the Arizona Partnership for Advancing State Policy to Increase Postsecondary Degree Attainment.  This collaborative group is working together to develop and implement policies, strategies, and tactics to raise the state’s postsecondary attainment rate.”

4. How did you come to be associated with College Success Arizona? Who was your connection? What made you want to support us? What made you so passionate about our mission?

“While I was working for Sallie Mae, I was asked to move to Delaware with my family and decided against it. This resulted in my leaving Sallie Mae. Six months later, I heard that College Success Arizona, which was then The Arizona College Scholarship Foundation, was looking for a new chief executive officer. My family wanted to come back to Arizona, so I decided to apply for the job. I ended up getting the position and we decided to move back here in late 2012.

Both of my parents were raised in a very poor region of Appalachian Kentucky. It was very rural, and there wasn’t great access in and out of the region. They were both the first in their families to attend and graduate from a university.  They became great professional role models for me.  Without the opportunity of college, they likely would have been working on a farm or a coal mine, with their options very limited; and I probably would have been right there with them. I want everyone to have the opportunity of college that I had; that’s why I’m so passionate about College Success Arizona’s mission.”

5. What is your vision for the Arizona of the future?

“My vision for the Arizona of the future is that all Arizonans, regardless of income or zip code or color, have equal opportunity to chase their dreams. We can’t promise outcomes, but what we should be able to do is give people the opportunity to determine their own outcomes. I think that it’s very clear here in Arizona that we have an opportunity to be the blueprint for the West when it comes to how we think about education and attainment; and I think for us, our vision really is to make sure that the Arizona workforce and economy gets what it needs from this opportunity group of low-income, first-generation, and diverse students to really make the economic future of Arizona exceptionally bright.”

6. Why do you feel increasing Arizona’s College Attainment Rates is so important?

“What you learn along the way when you work with universities and schools is, whether its student financing or scholarships, they are really just financial vehicles for students to gain access.

Then what you see along the way is that without the access, or financial help, all these great stories and outcomes of students wouldn’t have happened.

Because they knew to invest in themselves through that money, they‘ve been able to change their lives and the lives of everybody around them. So you start seeing a kind of exponential impact that helping one person can achieve; then what happens to that person’s circle of friends and family.  The benefit of that education is the larger influence has on not just that one person, but really on the entire community, in which that person lives.

You just really start to understand what’s truly important.”

7. If you had a message for a student just beginning their college career, what would that be?

“I would tell them that the question shouldn’t be ‘Is this a possibility’, it should be: ‘What do I have to do to get there?’

The thought pattern of someone going to college should be really identifying and then checking off those boxes of: ‘What do I need to do to go?’, not whether you should go and then figure out how. Financially, it’s hard and expensive; but there are resources available. With hard work, perseverance, some planning ahead of time, and identifying and utilizing resources; more people can go to college.


Junelle Bautista is a Communication and Engagement Intern and attends the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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