Meet our Team – Rich Nickel

August 28th, 2017

This is the final story (for now) in the series of interviews with people working to help Arizona’s highly motivated, low-income students attend, and graduate from College, increasing our state’s attainment rate.

Wrapping with this feature, we’re taking a closer look at the College Success Arizona team, the people that make all that we do happen.  We’ll be asking the normal “tell us a little about yourself” questions, but also delving a little deeper into each team member’s personality, and what makes them who they are.

This month’s subject is Rich Nickel, College Success Arizona’s President and CEO.

What is your role at College Success Arizona? 

I am the President and CEO.

Please share with us a little bit about your background. 

I have been helping students and schools across the country in some form or fashion for the last 25 years.  I have government, corporate and nonprofit experience, with much of that in senior leadership roles across the country. I’ve invested most my of career leading organizations and service-related businesses in the financial services and education finance arenas.  Prior to my role at College Success Arizona, I served as president of USA Funds Services, and as senior vice president in charge of Sallie Mae’s servicing relationship with the U.S. Department of Education at SLM Corporation.

My first role in Phoenix was in 2002, in a couple of executive positions with Southwest Student Services Corporation (SSSC), including president of the organization. I was part of the team that transitioned and sold Southwest, which later led to the creation of Arizona’s largest education foundation, the Helios Education Foundation.

I am originally a “Wildcat.”  My family and I came to Arizona via the Commonwealth of Kentucky, where I earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky.

How did you come to be associated with College Success Arizona?

Five years ago, I heard through the Chairman of the College Success Arizona Board of Directors, which was then known as the Arizona College Scholarship Foundation, that the organization was looking for a new CEO.  My wife and I were living in Frankfort, KY, but always knew that we wanted to come back to Arizona.  The mission and work of the organization was a great fit for my background and expertise, so I applied for the job.  I think that my passion for helping students became evident to the folks I spoke with along the way, and in November of 2012, I loaded up my wife and three sons, and took on my current role.

What is the best thing about working with students (or your job)?

It never gets old meeting students when they are 17 or 18 years of age, and are just starting their journey.  Then the great payoff is 4 years later when they graduate with that degree!  These days, I also enjoy developing information and data that we can share with policy and decision makers, to emphasize the absolute necessity of creating more degree earners in Arizona, and especially among the opportunity group of low-income, diverse, and first generation college attendees.  It has also been really exciting to interact more with Arizona’s great professionals in the college access and success space, through our Arizona College Access Network (AzCAN).

Why do you feel increasing Arizona’s College Attainment Rate is so important?

The upside of increased attainment in undeniable!  Our research and others’ clearly shows that the future economic and social well-being of Arizona, will be determined by how many people in our state have certificates and degrees.  The facts are this:  Arizonans that attain at higher levels, make more money and use less in the way of social services.  In Arizona, it is also paramount that we pay attention to the wide achievement gap between our fast-growing Latino population and their white peers.  If we don’t close that gap, we cannot reach any of our attainment goals.  This issue is so important, that the Board of College Success Arizona has made involvement in this initiative a major part of the next strategic plan.  To show our seriousness about it, I have participated as a founding Director of the new community owned, statewide initiative, Achieve60AZ.  Achieve60AZ has set the first ever attainment goal for Arizona at 60% by 2030, and will act as a catalyst to help Arizona achieve its goal.

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

I am involved in several collaborations and Boards, but the Achieve60AZ initiative is one that I am spending a lot of time on.  College Success Arizona is committed to helping stand up the organization and help move the initiative forward.  I believe that this initiative can be a North Star that will act as an education funding and programmatic catalyst for years to come.

What’s the best thing about working for College Success Arizona? 

Being part of the solution, and knowing that we are helping people both directly and indirectly, every day.  We also have a great team!

What is your vision for the Arizona of the future?

Arizona has the potential to be a truly great state for decades to come.  We have terrific weather, an inviting business climate, world class universities, and a diverse and growing workforce.  Now, we need to match the attainment level of our population to what is needed by business leaders who bring great paying jobs to our state.  My vision of Arizona, is that we are a leader in higher education access and success, especially for those who are not participating at acceptable rates today, but will be the future leaders of tomorrow.

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

GO TO CLASS!  Treat your academic career like you would a professional career.  Put 40 hours a week into class and studying, and then use your “off time” to enjoy the journey.  Sometimes things can feel overwhelming, but if you are organized, you can accomplish so much.

Basic stats (hometown, family, etc.):

I was born and raised in Frankfort, KY.  I am married and have three sons.  We love sports, traveling, and our cats and dogs.

What was your First or most interesting job:

My best job is this one!  The one I like to tell people about is when I was a country music disc jockey at a small station in Frankfort, KY.

What are your hobbies/favorite pastime:

I like to golf, cook, and travel.  When I have time, I like to take my Harley Davidson Fatboy out for a ride.

What is your favorite quote or motto:

There is no better time to get something done than right now.

What is your Favorite TV show:

Sherlock on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, or Game of Thrones J

What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without:

Coffee

What is your Culinary specialty:

Steak dinners

What’s your guilty pleasure:

Kentucky Bourbon

Do you have a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter (or other!) social media account:

Yes to all.  You can follow me on Twitter at @Rich_Nickel , or Instagram at @rnickel99

What’s the band you’d listen to for the rest of your life:

Red Hot Chili Peppers

What is your proudest moment:

Each time one of our sons was born.  Nothing else is even close.

“When I’m not working you’ll find me..”:

Watching high school wrestling or relaxing at home or on the road.

What would you want your superpower to be:

Invisibility

What’s your favorite movie:

Gladiator

Name a game show you would win:

Wheel of Fortune

Listen to the Podcast of Rich’s entire interview

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