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How to Make Our Institutions More Accessible

In his book The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, reminds us that “as society goes, so goes the university.” It is true that as the nation changes, so must higher education, and America is undergoing rapid demographic transformation. The students coming up the educational pipeline are the most diverse in American history, creating tremendous opportunity for colleges and universities to train and support these students — the future leaders of our nation.

While higher education is abuzz with goals of cultivating greater access and success for historically underrepresented groups, many institutions still engage in practices that work against these goals. If we are truly going to open our doors wider, we can’t do so without transforming our own policies and practices. Here are a few ways to move the needle:

Decrease Your Dependency on Testing:

While research studies continue to prove that standardized testing is not the best predictor of success in college, institutions continue to place heavy emphasis on them during evaluation. There is a direct correlation between success on the exam and wealth, and therefore low-income students are at a significant disadvantage. At my own institution, we dropped the testing requirement in 2015 and since then have found that there is no statistical difference between the first-year GPA of students who submitted test scores and those who did not. Our applicant pool is more diverse, and we have enrolled the highest number of low-income, first-generation students in school history. I have met many students on my campus who said they would not have applied if it were not for the test-optional policy. There are now more than 1,000 test-optional institutions in the nation, and I’ve yet to meet an official who regrets adopting this policy. Decrease your dependency on testing, and you will notice a difference in your enrollment pipeline.

Simplify Your Financial Aid Process:

The complexity and bureaucratic nature of our financial aid process in America reminds low-income families that they are poor — over and over again. These students and their families face significant hurdles when applying for aid. They must answer more than 100 questions on the FAFSA (and many more if a college requires the CSSProfile) and submit many forms of verification. All of this is enough to discourage even the most patient from completing the process. In states including California, New York, and Connecticut, the FAFSA completion rate is in the low 30s. Colleges can simplify this process for families. Even if you are a private college, require only the federal form for your lowest income students, collect their tax return, and create four-year financial aid awards that show them what the estimated total cost of attendance will be by the time they graduate. In my experience, there is very little fluctuation in income for the lowest income families at my institution. Why make them jump through so many hoops? Require the minimum to meet federal standards, and simplify the process. We have recently done this at my institution, and our low-income students have enrolled and retained at higher rates. Financial aid offices are quite formulaic and like to function with the tone of the IRS, but with a little extra effort, creativity, and student-centeredness, you can set students up for incredible success.

Stop the Bait and Switch:

So many colleges offer low-income students a scholarship in their first year, only to do away with it thereafter. This lack of transparency is unfair to the student, often leading to greater debt, or worse, dropping out. No other industry in America would allow a “customer” to not know what the final cost of the “product” is. Higher education shouldn’t either. No one wins when a student can afford one year of college but not the next. If you want to retain your students, give them a greater sense of what their education will cost up front. You’ll enroll a more diverse population, and you’ll retain them. In an era when one-third of students do not return to college their second year, every retention strategy counts.

Establish Strategic Support Systems:

Students entering our doors are increasingly diverse and therefore, arrive with varying sets of needs. Our institutions can’t assume that one size fits all when it comes to orientation, academic advising, course mentorship, and teaching. First-generation students, low-income students, students of color, and international students have different needs. To set them up for success, the institution must meet them where they are. College should not be about survival of the fittest. As the institution diversifies, it must revisit all of its policies and procedures to ensure that they promote inclusivity and student success. Higher education is infamous for doing things “because that’s how they’ve always been done,” but if we want our students to succeed, this approach just won’t work anymore.

Assume Nothing:

A first-generation student once came to my office gasping for air after his first class. His professor talked about “office hours,” a term he had not heard before, and he was worried that he already had missed something. Those of us who have dedicated our careers to higher education speak a dialect that many underrepresented students don’t understand. In fact, at a college success forum recently, former First Lady Michelle Obama admitted that when she got to college, she didn’t know what a syllabus was. I’ve had students who had no idea what a registrar or bursar was. They were too afraid to ask for fear of looking dumb, so they just avoided going. If you really want to set students up for success, assume nothing about the social and cultural capital they bring with them. It’s our job to meet them where they are and teach.

Adopt a Cradle-to-Grave Approach:

The old model of admissions offices admitting students and then pushing the files over to student affairs and academic affairs and saying “good luck” is no longer good enough.  We must serve as the strategic connection between their high school lives and their college lives.  Students bring strengths and challenges from their high school years, and it is critical that we are paying attention to the details and strategizing around their needs as early as the summer prior to their enrollment. Admissions should be working in close collaboration with academic advisers, student affairs professionals, counseling services, and even career offices to set students on a path to success. If one of those pieces of the chain breaks, students could be the ones who suffer. Finally, it’s not just about figuring out what kind of academic or personal support students might need; it’s also about figuring out what kind of services the college may offer that when exposed to early will make the student thrive.

Engage Politics:

Higher education is a public good, and we must lobby our state and federal representatives to ensure that it is supported. Low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, and nontraditional students will represent the largest populations entering higher education in the future. If we do not ensure there is funding and support for these students, we will have a national crisis on our hands. If we are to be a successful nation that competes on the global stage, we can’t leave certain populations — and definitely not a growing majority — behind. All academic research shows that higher education benefits not just individuals but society. Yet while other countries are increasing their investment in higher education, the United States continues to decrease its support. The higher education sector alone can’t ensure that we have an educated citizenry ready to take on the complex issues of our time. Our government must make a bold statement through its support. Higher education matters. It is critical to the future of America’s prosperity.

Dr. Angel B. Perez is Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. 

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