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Making an institution a “first choice” for underrepresented students

March 2, 2022

Mario Silva-Rosa

Director for Undergraduate Admission at Bentley University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

Institutional success and DEIJ initiatives are intertwined. Success warrants developing a clear, intentional, and personalized outreach strategy that makes an institution a “first choice” for underrepresented students. Recognizing existing gaps by race and ethnicity in recruitment, matriculation, retention, and graduation rates is essential.

As the Director for Undergraduate Admission at Bentley University located in Waltham, Massachusetts and as part of the admission process, I have seen and understood the complexity of a recruitment strategy that can serve an institution well moving forward. As we know, demography, geography and the economy will continue to have a significant impact on the recruitment process. Underrepresented students tend to self-select out of the prospect pool at selective institutions due to the sticker price, fit, and procedural barriers.

Data is available to identify the demographic cliff as forecasted by declines in the college-going students in the U.S. from 2025 forward that shows that despite modest growth in the next few years, the cliff will be felt in a significant way with a sharp decline in college-going students of 15% or more. Having said that, no formalized structure exists for assessing the actual impact of this cliff at institutions, and the information about the decline is uneven by regions.

Institutions need to examine ways to improve strategies and partnerships. The new “travel normal” may mean a modification in the current strategy. Financial support and shifting of resources will be required. Institutions need to recognize the key factors when planning an aid strategy to understand trade-offs and reduce risks, but also the potential impact an aid award will have on the student’s decision to enroll.

Partnerships, articulations, and memorandum of understandings (MOUs) with community-based organizations (CBOs), and community colleges with high percentage of students of color in targeted markets/regions of the country may be a sound strategy to pursue. Some selective colleges are consistently transfer-friendly, and they admit a high percentage of transfer applicants, and occasionally have transfer acceptance rates that are higher than acceptance rates for the first-year applicant pool.

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Here are four critical areas to consider when enhancing an institution’s viable strategies for improving enrollment channels and identifying, attracting, and enrolling underrepresented students.

1. Data-driven practices

Use data-driven planning to improve recruitment and enrollment rates for underrepresented populations. Catalyze an institutional culture shift toward an equity-driven framework and recruitment practices. Align marketing and recruitment efforts to improve affinity towards the brand.

2. Recruitment and incentives

Scale college access programs including but not limited to early awareness programs. Engage families in the recruitment process and most importantly, provide clarity to that process.

Creating articulation agreements with community colleges is a great start, but working with these students even before they graduate from high school is enormous in helping them pick classes and, larger than anything else, start the relationship building. Four-year colleges and universities that have guaranteed admission agreements with community colleges are able to collaborate with each other on recruitment initiatives, admission pipelines, and marketing strategies.

3. Awareness and guidance

Share data on current and future markets along with data related to marketing and communication plans with team members. Provide initial guidance, and share resources to raise awareness of challenges and goals for recruitment of underrepresented populations.

4. Support and recognition

Strengthen institutional hold on current markets that yield underrepresented students and select expansion in markets that have potential for growth and fit. The use of data can be a strategic asset for the institution to better understand prospective students and their needs.

Institutions must monitor key performance indicators using advanced, interactive dashboards and/or reports. This attitude can certainly provide a systematic approach to achieving the desirable institutional goals and support the ability to reassess the efforts constantly.

The pandemic has accelerated many existing trends in higher education and forced institutions to revisit issues of strategy and identity. It is up to institutions to find ways to transform themselves in response to these trends.


EAB Interviews and Analysis: Enrollment market realities of the 2020s

US News and World Report

Grawe, Nathan., The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes, 2021

Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), Knocking at the College Door Report: Projections of High School Graduates, December 2020

United States Census Bureau: Population Projections U.S. by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin, October 2021

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Mario Silva-Rosa and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in fall 2021

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