On calls with vice presidents of enrollment and other campus stakeholders, diversity is a recurring topic of discussion. They specifically want to increase the presence of underrepresented racial and socioeconomic student populations on campus. Chances are, your campus leaders are asking a similar question: How can we enroll and retain a more diverse student body?
I’m excited that our team has responded to this pressing need with research-informed advice. In our most recent white paper, we’ve laid out nine steps to enroll more underrepresented students in a high-level framework that covers each stage of the enrollment funnel.
Many enrollment offices are eager to act—especially if race-conscious admissions practices are discontinued in the near future. However, quick action without adequate preparation could cause more harm than good. In this blog, I’ll focus on the first half of the process: laying the groundwork.
Crucial context for your diversity strategy
In the white paper, we focus on particular populations within the broader category of underserved students—specifically lower-income, first-generation, Black, and Latinx students. We chose these groups because they represent large numbers of individuals whose college-going rate is significantly lower than that of their peers, i.e., gains here can be expected to benefit the largest number of students. Furthermore, a focus on lower-income and first-generation students in particular takes on extra relevance in the context of legal restrictions on race-conscious admissions practices.
When you set out to create or refine your diversity strategy, it’s important to be specific about who you are identifying as underrepresented for your particular campus. Completing these four foundational steps will help you do that.
Step 1: Clarify your diversity-recruitment aims
Your first step is to identify your objectives. Some institutions simply seek to grow and sustain enrollment counts, while others find purpose in promoting social mobility and fighting a legacy of structural racism. Motivations will vary by institution and even by department. You may end up with several overlapping goals that will require a more coordinated effort among your team.
Ensuring that your departmental goals are aligned with broader campus priorities is key to achieving your goals. Your institutional “why” will act as your guiding light to set specific priorities and assess progress against your diversity recruitment goals. Until you’re clear about the outcomes you hope see, success will be difficult to assess. Be specific about what you hope to accomplish when you talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
Step 2: Assess your current enrollment gaps
After identifying the outcomes you’d like to see from your diversity strategy, it’s time to take a deeper look at your institution’s enrollment trends. Which student populations have been most represented in your enrollment funnel? Does that differ by enrollment stage? Review a multi-year report to distinguish who is in your inquiry pool from your applicant base, admitted students, incoming class, and degree completers. You'll be better equipped to plan initiatives for each step of the enrollment process when you know which stage has the most barriers for underrepresented students.
Next, you’ll need to zoom out from this trend analysis to understand the makeup of prospective students in particular geographic regions who may be missing from your applicant pool.
Depending on the selectivity of your institution, a baseline analysis of high school graduates isn’t sufficient to determine the college-ready prospect pool available to recruit. So, context about K-12 educational trends and demographic shifts will be critical when determining existing gaps between the pool of admissible students and underserved student populations currently on your campus. This assessment ensures you are responsibly focusing recruitment efforts on students you’re confident that your institution can support.
Step 3: Audit your existing student support capabilities
Campus leaders devote a lot of resources to understanding students’ academic readiness, but once they matriculate, what institutional resources are waiting for them? Do you offer the financial, academic, and social support that underrepresented students need to thrive after enrollment? The term ‘underrepresented’ may tempt you to compress the experiences of these students into a unified narrative, but underrepresented doesn’t automatically mean unprepared.
You’ll be better equipped to engage prospective students when you identify their distinct experiences and their overlapping educational needs. The last thing you want is for your diversity strategy to uphold harmful stereotypes that conflate a student’s socioeconomic status or race and their academic potential.
Gather the recruitment, financial aid, student success, and assessment experts on your team to determine if you are prepared to retain and graduate the students you want to recruit. They may determine that your institution needs to increase funding and staffing for multiple departments or invest in a student success management system to holistically support students. But you can enroll and retain students from a wider academic range with a stronger student success infrastructure. Plus, a strong student support system is key to building trust with prospective students and their advocates.
Step 4: Initiate (or recalibrate) CBO partnerships
Student advocates in college access organizations and schools share your commitment to increasing equitable enrollment outcomes for underserved students. These community-based organizations (CBOs) primarily work with students from the exact populations that enrollment leaders want to recruit. The size and scope of these organizations will vary, but they have a long-standing track record of improving educational outcomes in marginalized communities which ultimately benefits your campus community.
Regardless of your travel budget or in-person recruitment practices, partnering with CBOs unlocks additional opportunities to identify and engage underserved students beyond the large pockets of admissible, priority students that show up in commercial list sources. Resources like College Greenlight’s CBO Directory can help you find organizations that would be ideal partners for achieving your goals.
CBO partnerships can be formal agreements between your team and the organization, or less formal commitments to addressing barriers that CBOs are working to overcome such as visit opportunities, admission considerations, and securing gift aid. The analyses you complete in the first three steps of this process will be vital to successfully initiating and maintaining community partnerships. When you share your commitment to diversity with disaggregated student success information, CBOs will be more inclined to champion your DEI enrollment goals and recommend applicants for your institution.
Institutions that have been slower to launch diversity efforts often assume that these initiatives require extensive funding or staffing, but if you start with smaller, sustainable changes, you can eventually scale your initiatives to support a larger number of students. Yes, it can be hard to get everyone in the room at the same time, but the preparation time and effort are worth it.
There are more details about what I shared above – and a number of specific practices for you and your team to implement in the full white paper, An Enrollment Leader’s Guide to Diversity Strategy.
Ready to find out more?
In addition to providing important high-level context on diversity strategy in higher education, our white paper maps out concrete steps you can take to enroll more Black, Latinx, lower-income, and first-generation students.