At the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, current students, particularly those from immigrant families who may not immediately see themselves reflected on campus, “are really engaged in the recruitment and enrollment process,” said Rachelle Hernandez, the associate vice provost for enrollment management and director of admissions.
But admitting a diverse cohort of students is only the first step, and in the last several years schools have launched or expanded programs to help first-generation and low-income students who often come from families unfamiliar with higher education. These students’ families may not be tapped into the networks that so many wealthy families rely on to give their children a boost as they enter adulthood. “You have to help them get their first internship,” Nondorf said. “This stuff is relatively new.”
At Georgia Tech, students are encouraged to go to one-to-one tutoring when they need it, and the school tries to intervene early when it spots issues. Universities used to make the assumption that students would take advantage of campus programs, Hernandez said, but that’s no longer the case. Her team, she said, sends information home to families about what’s offered on campus to keep them informed and make sure they feel included. “It’s saying to the student, ‘You and your community matter to us.’” The University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, funds summer research and work opportunities for students so they don’t have to miss out on opportunities that could advance their careers to take summer jobs, said Stephanie Dupaul, the vice president for enrollment management. Retention is actually higher among low-income students, Dupaul added.
“I think we should talk more about that,” said Inzer, referring to retention. It’s an important piece of the conversation, and more policymakers are focusing on which schools successfully graduate students who are able to find good jobs and support themselves. Students who drop out are often left with loans they struggle to repay, and there is increasing pressure on schools to help students limit their debt.
Yet schools push back at some of the ideas students and some advocacy groups say would help more low-income young people earn a degree. Many schools, the University of Chicago and Georgia Tech included, have legacy admission programs that give some preference to students who come from families where a parent or sibling has attended the school, something that, by definition, benefits few first-generation students. And schools are reluctant to dip too far into their endowments; schools need to think not only about the present, Nondorf, whose school has an endowment of more than $7 billion, said, but about the future, too.
Still, while there are clearly remaining challenges when it comes to enrolling and graduating students who have traditionally not had a place on college campuses, admissions leaders seem increasingly cognizant of the fact that student demographics are shifting, and, more importantly, that their increasingly varied needs are worth supporting.