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3 strategies to successfully recruit and enroll underrepresented students

Lessons from College Greenlight’s work with 1500+ community-based organizations

December 15, 2021, By Jonathan April, Managing Director, College Greenlight

With the demographic cliff looming, effectively recruiting underrepresented students is more of a necessity for institutions than ever before. And in the last ten years as Managing Director of College Greenlight, I’ve seen firsthand what works and what doesn’t.

Closing the opportunity gap for students from first-generation, lower-income, BIPOC, and other underrepresented identities has been at the heart of College Greenlight’s mission since 2011. We have partnered with more than 1,500 college access organizations and schools that collectively serve 750,000 students each year. And we’ve helped more than 200 colleges and universities scale their recruitment efforts, expand their outreach, and enroll more underrepresented students.

How College Greenlight works with 4-year institutions and community-based organizations to expand college access

Here are the three important lessons we’ve learned about how colleges and universities can diversify their enrollment pipelines.

1. Foster relationships with CBOs that share your mission and goals

There are thousands of college access and college readiness programs, and each is unique. Variations include the level of service provided (e.g. the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation provides scholarship support), student location (e.g. CollegePoint provides nationwide virtual counseling and Palouse Pathways serves rural students), or a focus on a specific type of college or university (e.g. Schuler Scholars prepares students to succeed at highly selective colleges).

We generally categorize our college access organizations in one of three ways:

  1. Non-profit or university-funded organizations
  2. Federal or state government-funded programs
  3. Charter schools and school networks

One unifying trend across CBOs is that they tend to work with smaller cohorts of students and develop close relationships with participants. They can work with students as early as middle school, so their long-term relationships with students result in having more influence over student enrollment decisions. CBOs that also work closely with families end up building a strong support network of advocates for students to lean on as they navigate the entire college journey.

Tap into these strong student advocacy networks to maximize student buy-in. If you educate the CBO and the family about opportunities at your institution, instead of just reaching out to the student directly, you increase the chances of that student feeling confident applying to and enrolling at your institution.

Resources like College Greenlight’s CBO directory, which includes information on mission, location, services offered, and demographics, can help you identify organizations that best align with your specific recruitment goals.

What colleges can learn about equity from a community-based organization

2. Build authentic connections with prospects and CBOs

To build impactful relationships with CBOs, be prepared to share an authentic perspective of your institution. CBO counselors have a nuanced view of the challenges their students are facing – they see it every day, even after high school graduation. And they want to know that their students will be successful academically, socially, emotionally, financially, and physically on your campus, so be prepared to build your credibility with them.

“Authenticity is key-and the best barometer of what your institution is like for a specific population is asking someone who is living the experience right now.”

— Director of Admission, Private University in the South


Sharing success stories of students who mirror the identities and backgrounds of the students served by CBOs helps build trust with both the leaders and their participants. Prospective students perceive near-peer sources, like current students and recent alumni, to be more honest than professional staff members. Some methods of highlighting student life include panels with current students and student-produced media that give an authentic look at college life.

In addition, be prepared to talk openly about student life and success on your campus. Here are a few questions to anticipate answering when establishing a candid relationship with a new organization:

  1. What does a successful applicant from our program look like for your institution?
  2. Where do students go to receive financial, academic, social, or mental support on campus?
  3. Are there specific programs for underrepresented students (or other priority populations)?
  4. What are some of the barriers current underrepresented students face on your campus?
  5. Are there funding opportunities to help students with the costs for career preparation and social activities?

Another way for enrollment leaders to be more transparent is publishing disaggregated demographics, graduation rates, or career attainment statistics online. Help CBOs see how your institution addresses career readiness and preparation for their students.

3. Amplify your institution’s access initiatives

When you build relationships with college access organizations, help them understand the unique opportunities at your institution for the students they serve. They have established networks with the students you want to recruit and can spread the word to students who aren’t seeing your recruitment marketing materials. Present a clear picture of how you hope to diversify your incoming class and how you’ll support their students through graduation. We’ve seen great success among partners who leverage CBOs to promote their fly-in and diversity visit programs.

A great way to demonstrate your commitment to DEI is by defining the goals of your diversity and inclusion initiatives. Diversity initiatives aim to bring more students onto your campus. Examples include expanding your geographic reach for recruitment programs, providing greater financial aid for more socioeconomic diversity, and highlighting academic programs that you want to have more gender parity. Inclusion (and belonging) initiatives are necessary for all students to be successful, but our research has shown that for underrepresented students, it’s a key factor in college persistence. Examples include creating affinity student organizations, increasing cultural competency learning opportunities for faculty/staff, and providing financial support for social events.

What universities can do to advance student belonging

In some communities, you’ll have to reframe an existing narrative about your brand, rather than establish your brand from scratch. A little myth-busting can go a long way in regions that have a strong affinity for a local flagship or less familiarity with your campus. Don’t underestimate the narratives that can develop in the communities closest to you. It can be helpful to reframe the conversation about how much your surrounding community contributes to your campus experience. Promoting your access initiatives through trusted CBO networks is the best way to extend the reach of your programs to your intended audiences.

Jonathan April

Jonathan April

Managing Director, College Greenlight

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