The United States is now entering a lengthy period of stagnation in the number of high-school graduates, and especially a decline in white students. In 2000, white students made up 70 percent of U.S. high-school graduates, according to data from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. By the early 2030s, they will represent just 53 percent. Students of color are far more likely than their white peers to be low-income or the first in their families to go to college.
The question for the tradition-bound college-admissions industry is whether the strategies that have worked well in the past—mostly buying names of prospective students from the College Board and the ACT to inform marketing decisions—will continue to yield a new generation of students whose parents didn’t attend college or lack the financial means and the willingness to travel far to campuses.
“Purchasing names is not the be all and end all to finding a diverse class of students,” said Timothy E. Brunold, the dean of admission at the University of Southern California. “It requires more work and meaningful contact with students.”
Often that comes through organizations that serve low-income and first-generation high-school students, such as QuestBridge and the Posse Foundation, which identify high-achievers from low-income families, as well as the College Advising Corps, which places recent college graduates in low-income high schools to work as college advisers.
Because most colleges are trying to achieve greater diversity while at the same time improving their academic profile, first-generation and low-income high-school students with top test scores are typically the most sought after when colleges purchase prospect names from the ACT and College Board.
Ivan Alexis Mosqueda fit that profile after he received a near-perfect score on the PSAT his sophomore year at William Monroe High School in Central Virginia. “I started to get flooded with mail and e-mail from colleges,” he said. “It was overwhelming. It wasn’t useful at all in sorting out the options I had or in making decisions on where to go.”
Now a senior, Mosqueda said he received intensive help during the college-search and application process from QuestBridge, from a counselor at his high school from the College Advising Corps, and through a Yale University program for high-achieving students.
Without those advisors to guide him, Mosqueda said he would have been lost in the marketing maelstrom unable to navigate the pathway to college. Instead, he’s going to MIT in the fall. Many low-income students aren’t as fortunate and “undermatch,” meaning that they don’t attend—or even apply to—the most selective college that would accept them and where they are more likely to graduate.
One concern of admissions deans is that, as the pool of would-be students able to pay significant shares of the tuition bill shrinks, colleges will increasingly use their marketing prowess to go after high-achieving students whose families have the ability to pay at least some of the tuition bill, leaving low-income students with fewer options.