The president of a major university—who’s built her 30-year career on improving access to higher education—is watching the opportunities that she was afforded as a first-generation college student disappear. Rita Hartung Cheng, PhD, entered college as the oldest child of a Wisconsin dairy farmer and teacher. She married at 20 and moved around often in the name of her husband’s career. In turn, her education took a backseat, but it was never pushed aside entirely. It took her seven years across five institutions, but Dr. Hartung Cheng received her bachelor’s degree with honors. And she earned her MBA over another four years. When Dr. Hartung Cheng enrolled in the Fox School of Business as a doctoral student in business management, she was the mother of two preschool-age children. She was also a full-time student for the first time since her freshman year. Now the 16th president of Northern Arizona University, Dr. Hartung Cheng worries that current and prospective students won’t have the luxury of time—or much else. “My concern is, with the decline in state support, we have become more tuition-dependent,” Dr. Hartung Cheng says. “And the financial burden is a barrier to consideration. We all pride ourselves on the ways we can package financial aid, but the sticker price is turning off a lot of first-generation college students.” Part of what drew Dr. Hartung Cheng to Flagstaff four years ago was the opportunity to apply her commitment to improving the access to and affordability of higher education to a rapidly evolving region. Nearly half (46 percent) of Northern Arizona’s 26,000 students are first-generation college students, and 25 percent of them are Hispanic. “It’s a growing ethnic minority that absolutely needs to have that college degree. But those families are not in a position to afford it or advise their children on how to best finish their education,” Dr. Hartung Cheng says. “I was fortunate to have married someone who was very supportive and pushed me to persist.” While her husband may have fed that fire, she credits her doctoral classmates and faculty with drawing it out of her during her time at the Fox School. “I can close my eyes and always have a very clear visual of those years, sitting in the PhD lounge in the basement of Speakman Hall in the late afternoon before classes, studying together or discussing a difficult concept,” Dr. Hartung Cheng says. “We supported each other through everything. And they showed me how important it was to pick yourself up from a disappointment.” From then on, Dr. Hartung Cheng was the picture of persistence, so immersed in the work at hand that she describes each promotion—first to associate dean of the Sheldon B. Lubar School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then to provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs, relocation to Southern Illinois University, where she was chancellor and an accounting professor, and then to Northern Arizona—as an unexpected and abrupt development. “I thought I was going to stay in Milwaukee for the rest of my career,” she says. But each position also brought an immediate opportunity to reach students who were first in their family to consider college. And Dr. Hartung Cheng realized along the way, that she was all the proof these students needed to understand higher education’s ability to transform lives.
Temple University Degree
Doctor of Philosophy ‘88, Fox School of Business
What I wanted to be when I was 20 years old
No clue. I was the oldest of six kids from a dairy farm in Wisconsin, a first-generation college student.
Best piece of advice anyone ever gave me
“Make sure you finish your degree.” I was working full-time at the University of Minnesota, and a supervisor pulled me aside and said that to me. He also told me I was very quantitative and that I should think about a career as an actuary or an accountant. I had no idea what they did, but that moment proved pivotal.