Now that college acceptance letters have been sent, the pressure is on students to choose what schools to attend by May 1st, National Decision Day. But institutions are under pressure, too. The effects of the pandemic on college enrollments are still lingering, with a total enrollment decline of 1.2 million students since the fall of 2019, and notable decreases in students with several under-represented backgrounds. This year, schools have been doing everything that they can to entice students—particularly minoritized ones—to commit for next fall.
The process of getting students enrolled and on-campus starts long before they’ve even applied. Queens University of Charlotte has tweaked its outreach strategy this year beginning with its very first interaction with a student.
“We adjusted our communication to be focused on where the student is in the journey, instead of centering Queens,” said Adrienne Oddi, the vice president of strategic enrollment and communications. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, Queens is awesome,’ we start with ‘Hey, we think you’re awesome.’”
This encouraging attitude can be especially important for students from under-represented backgrounds, who may feel uncertain about whether college is for them.
“It’s helping people see themselves in a space that may be unfamiliar to them, that’s potentially different from what others around them are experiencing,” said Oddi.
Making sure that minoritized students know that they can fit in at college was an important motivator of Emory University’s social media strategy for this year, according to John Latting, associate vice provost and dean of admission at the Atlanta-based school. Emory hired a diverse group of student-employees to work on social media this year, with the aim of making the college seem more approachable to students from different backgrounds. At times, the content is clearly pitched towards this goal, like in a video of a Black student from New York speaking about his experiences in the South. But it also comes through more casually, with clips showing diverse students simply living their lives on campus.
Other schools are making diversity a part of their communications from the beginning. This comes amid a growing and widening interest among Black students, in particular, who are opting to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Enrollment at these institutions is rapidly growing.
Other Minority Serving Institutions are being aggressive in courting minority students.
“We are very proud and vocal about our diversity all the way through the cycle, from the moment we get introduced to a student,” said Jordana Maziarz, director of undergraduate admissions at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “They’re going to know that we’re a Hispanic-serving institution. They’re going to know that 41% of students are first-generation, that we have an office of student belonging. It’s not a footnote in the conversation, it’s part of the bread and butter of the Montclair experience.”
Institutions are also improving their financial aid offerings. This year, Queens revamped its scholarship levels and allocation of aid to meet a higher percentage of students’ financial need. As of this year, Emory has replaced loans with grants in all of its need-based aid, and is examining how it factors home equity into aid calculations to reduce the pressure that families experience to borrow against their homes.
Even applications are changing. Queens realized that students who were filling out its application were stopping when recommendations were requested.
“Getting those counselor and teacher recommendations, even for really great students, was really difficult,” said Oddi. “For many, especially those coming from the least-resourced high schools, that was a major barrier for them. So, we eliminated that.”
According to Oddi, most of the recommendations had been confirming things that the admissions department already knew about the applicants instead of adding new information. This year, with recommendations no longer required, a much higher percentage of applications were completed.
The process continues once acceptance letters go out, with schools making special efforts to cater to varied backgrounds during programming for prospective students. Montclair offers events on the Black student experience and a session with the Latinx/a/o Caucus.
“Those have been wildly helpful and popular,” said Maziarz.
At Montclair, first-generation faculty, staff, and students wear pins during admitted student days so that prospective students can see how many people there understand what it’s like to navigate a university when no one in your family has done it. There’s also a peer mentorship program, in which admitted students are matched one-to-one with an upperclassman. The organizers make sure that there are a diverse group of mentors and accommodate requests from potential students to be matched with a mentor of the same background.
Like Montclair, Emory offers identity-themed panels as part of its programming for prospective students. These events take place over Zoom, so that prospective students from across the world can participate. There’s also an event called Essence of Emory in which admitted students from under-represented backgrounds can explore the campus for three days. All expenses, including travel, are paid.
It’s clear that there’s no single solution to boost enrollment, particularly of students from under-represented backgrounds. So, schools are making changes at all phases of the process. Oddi says that Queens has nicknamed their strategy “everything, everywhere, all the time.” It seems to be making a difference.
“Compared to this time last year, we have twice as many Pell-eligible students enrolled and committed for the fall,” she said. “I’m so proud of that.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com