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Arizona State University has boosted its retention rate and the percentage of students who graduate within six years while also increasing the percentage of students who come from low-income families.

Andy DeLisle/ASU

The first hint that Arizona State University is not a typical school are signs punctuating the palm tree-lined pedestrian mall where students seek refuge from the unrelenting desert sun. One sign directs visitors to the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Another announces the School of Historical and Critical Inquiry. You'll be hard pressed to find any traditional disciplines here.

These unusually-named, discipline-straddling schools are the result of the massive transformation ASU has undergone in the past decade. It has shot up national and international rankings, almost tripled its research funding and seen huge increases in enrolment (to 62,100 undergrads in 2013, from 42,800 in 2002). Dismantling traditional departments in order to foster what ASU president Michael Crow calls "intellectual fusion" certainly raised eyebrows, but the university's most radical departure from the status quo may be in its approach to undergraduate education.

Since 2002, when Dr. Crow took the helm, ASU has significantly boosted its retention rate (the portion of first-year students who return for a second year) and the percentage of students who graduate within six years. But more impressive is that ASU achieved this while also increasing the percentage of students who come from low-income families. "Its success will be measured not by who the university excludes, but rather by who the university includes," Dr. Crow has written. The approach, which he aggressively promotes as the New American University model, is ASU's attempt to have its cake and eat it, too. But can a university be simultaneously world-class and broadly inclusive?

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Dr. Crow traces his influences back to his working class boyhood when he realized that smart, capable, talented kids from low-income families didn't have access to the same opportunities as those from families with higher incomes. "I realized that life wasn't fair," he recalls. "So as a public university, what's our duty? Our duty is to make certain that class is not the predictor of an individual's outcome, that merit and talent and energy are the predictors."

Armed with an entrepreneurial bent acquired while working for Columbia University, Dr. Crow went about a campaign to infuse innovation into every level of the institution. He encouraged faculty to rethink everything from how to measure the impact of their research to the structure of a semester or a class.

Professors and students at ASU credit the university's creation of a sophisticated online advising tool as having a large impact on undergraduate student success. The tool helps students plot their path through their education, track and manage their progress and access resources when needed to keep on pace. The tool also collects a lot of data, and helps the university identify struggling students early so they can intervene with support.

By using so-called "big data," ASU has developed Web-based courses and blended classes in which students combine online instruction with in-class work. For example, ASU conducted a study of how first-year students worked through introductory math courses (a common stumbling block causing first-year students to drop out) and found that no two students learned in exactly the same way. The school developed adaptive learning techniques that personalize instruction online.

The road has not been without bumps. Critics say ASU's rapid growth in enrolment and research is too much, too fast. In 2009, the university eliminated more than 500 jobs, including deans and department chairs, in response to budget shortfalls.

But students report that ASU's fast-paced culture of innovation trickles down into the classroom, creating an exciting learning environment. In one classroom, Megan McHugh, a liberal arts and science student, was working on a project assisting a non-governmental organization in Cameroon create a campaign to get kids interested in sustainable agriculture. "My profs encourage me to think about how to change the world," she said.

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