Ashish Vaidya flips core education question: Is NKU student-ready?

For decades, we have been asking high school seniors a simple question: “Are you college-ready?” One local college president thinks we are asking the wrong question. To the wrong party. 

Ashish Vaidya, President, Northern Kentucky University. Is NKY student-ready?
Ashish Vaidya

Ashish Vaidya, president of Northern Kentucky University since 2018, thinks we should instead be asking colleges and universities about their state of readiness. The question he asks – of every professor, every advisor, every secretary, groundskeeper and coach on his Highland Heights campus – is more introspective and challenging: Are we student-ready?

This is not the only way Vaidya, an economics professor, is trying to change the way the school approaches students. As many schools define success by how many applicants they exclude, President Vaidya is trying to be more inclusive and welcoming to all students. He wants a classroom at NKU to include 18-year-old freshmen with high test scores and stellar grades seated next to a 30-year-old auto mechanic returning to classes to better his chance at achieving the American Dream. 

Approach has NKU growing

It seems the man is on to something. NKU is growing while many colleges and universities are shrinking because of fallout from the COVID pandemic and the rising cost of education. NKU had 14,566 total students when he started; this year there are 15,994. But Vaidya doesn’t want just growth, he wants its students to excel. He is certain the path to success lies in finding and recruiting qualified students, even if they do not follow a traditional path to campus. And he is not bashful about it. 

In the second paragraph of Vaidya’s “Letter from the President” – typically a place where the face of a school talks about reading Chaucer, discovering new planets or the latest rankings from U.S. News and World Report – Vaidya makes it clear that all are welcome, so long as they are willing to work. 

“Here, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. Here, what matters most is what you can and want to do – and your willingness to work hard to bring it all to life.” 

Vaidya came to this nontraditional philosophy of inclusion by taking a fairly nontraditional path to his role as university president. Each step along the way informed the type of university president he would become. 

Ashish Vaidya was born and raised in India. In a vast country of well over a billion people, most people live their entire lives tied largely to one or two areas. Not Vaidya. His father was an engineer for the government, which meant he moved around often, akin to a military family in this country. He grew accustomed to meeting new people, experiencing new cultures, becoming familiar with different languages, religions and ways of life. He saw rich and poor, educated and illiterate. He became accustomed to different languages, politics and food. He learned to see value, or at the very least, potential, in everybody. 

After earning his master’s degree at the University of Mumbai, Vaidya came to the United States. He earned his doctorate in economics from the University of California, Davis, and began his career in academia. 

Drawn to working-class students

He was drawn not to prestigious private schools, or even to the most selective public universities serving the most elite or advantaged students. Instead, Vaidya’s passion was to teach at schools with a more working-class student population. He found that environment at California State University, Los Angeles, a school quite different from UCLA or Stanford. 

“When I was in the classroom, really teaching the students, it became pretty clear to me that, yeah, these students have a different experience. At Cal State LA, there was a significant number of Hispanic and Asian students who were the first in their families to go to college, many low income students, and I witnessed their struggle,” Vaidya said. “But I also witnessed their strong desire and motivation to move ahead. That was very compelling. They were so bent on that elusive American Dream. That was the ticket out of the low income strata.” 

A career was born. Vaidya has spent the last 30 years as a teacher or administrator at state schools that students find more accessible and affordable. Schools that could open minds and change lives. Schools filled with students who were equal parts bright and ambitious. 

“State colleges and universities are meant for access. They are meant for opportunities. I embrace that mission. I came to not only embrace it, but to really understand that this is something that is critical if we are going to make transformative change.” 

Many of the people who benefit from this access are nontraditional students, who, Vaidya said, are becoming less and less rare on America’s college campuses. He said a majority of students at public colleges have at least one of the following characteristics: not coming straight from high school, holding a job or jobs, having a dependent child, coming from a low income background or being the first member of their family to go to college. 

‘It’s a huge responsibility’

Vaidya said teaching these students is a joy, but it also creates an obligation for the institution. “It’s a huge responsibility. That individual has chosen to place their time, resources and commitment with an institution. Our job is to not only make sure that door is wide open, but to try to minimize the obstacles along their path,” Vaidya said. “It does not mean they are going to have an easy ride in the classroom. No question about that. We will work their butts off.” 

And this is one of the narrow paths that Vaidya is trying to lead his university down. He respects the intellect of “nontraditional students,” but he also is aware that things can go wrong more easily for students without a lot of economic cushion or a family history of going to school. 

The responsibility we have is that, once they have been accepted, we make sure they do not fall through the cracks. Ashish Vaidya

“For many of our students, they step onto campus and they are the first in their families to go to college. They have no sense of what may or may not happen. And they can struggle. And, by the way, most of their struggles are not academic. It could be other things. It could be social. It could be a mental health challenge. Food insecurity, you name it. If they come across those adversities, the first thing to enter their minds is, ‘Oh, jeez, this is only happening to me,’ and the second thing is, ‘Well, I probably don’t belong here.’ The responsibility we have is that, once they have been accepted, we make sure they do not fall through the cracks.”

Ashish Vaidya also works to navigate the middle ground in the philosophical debate on the most important purpose of higher education: Does the institution exist to create great thinkers or to help people learn new skills, get better jobs and make more money? More cynically, does it exist solely to feed local businesses with better employees? Vaidya said it’s a difficult choice, but it’s not one institutions – or students – have to make. A student can be intellectually enriched and learn how to become a teacher, nurse or biologist. 

As the steward of a public school, with tax dollars from citizens and businesses helping to make his budget work, he feels compelled to serve his entire community. NKU needs to create more job-ready graduates, ideally to stay and work in the Northern Kentucky area. These are people who will stay at home, work in good jobs and pay taxes creating more opportunities for the next generation of students. 

Is that work fulfilling? “It is,” he said, when thinking of how students who graduate from NKU are different from how they entered. 

“I return to economics, where we talk about the concept of value added. How much value did you add? It is typically in the process of production. How have you changed something that made it more valuable? And by the way, our programs can add value to all students, not just the ones with challenges.” 

Vaidya said 85% of NKU graduates stay in Greater Cincinnati after graduation. They find compelling careers, buy homes and serve their communities. “We are driving the workforce, we are driving the community engagement piece. We are creating a more vibrant community. We have a duty. United States democracy is based on America being the land of opportunity, and the way to do that is through education. Public education.” 

Vaidya knows that a good school creates better thinkers, employees and citizens. That may be the most important part.

“All these things are tied together. College graduates not only produce higher levels of income – and the evidence for that is overwhelming – but they also lead to thriving communities. Communities that have large populations of college graduates are healthier, favor the arts, they donate more, they do more community service.” Then, of course, he returns to his academic roots. 

“I will have to put on my economist hat, there are so many ‘spill-over benefits’ that accrue to the society, not just the individual,” Vaidya said. “We provide access and opportunity that will enable you not only to have a successful career, but a meaningful life,” Vaidya said. “Our expectation is that, once you get an NKU degree, you should be prepared for both those objectives.”

More from the August 2022 issue of Movers & Makers and our FOCUS ON: Higher Education:

The purpose of higher education: Better citizens or better job prospects?

Notables: 25 leaders in Greater Cincinnati higher education

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