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NACAC’s quarterly flagship publication, The Journal of College Admission, offers readers resources from thought leaders tracking the pulse of college admission counseling; the foremost authorities on trends, data, and research; and members dedicated to ethical college admission.

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By James Paterson

In recent years, the public discussion about the value of a college degree has become more prominent. With the average student loan debt at an all-time high and the cost of college continuing to rise,  parents and students are asking, “What’s the return on investment?” Admission professionals are now fielding more questions than ever, and colleges and universities are under even greater scrutiny to prove their value.


Jeremy Branch was holding a somewhat routine recruitment meeting in a high school library last fall, although a bit of nostalgia was attached to the session since he had graduated from that south-central Pennsylvania school a few years prior.

He was warmly greeted, and the students and parents listened intently and asked questions familiar to him—about dorms and meals, SAT scores, and the FAFSA.

But when he talked about the value of college—a discussion meant to reassure the crowd that their commitment to higher education was worth it—a man stood up and changed the tone.

“That’s not true,” he said. “My nephew went to your school and he can’t find a job, but he’s still paying off the debt he took on.”

Branch, senior assistant director of enrollment management for Penn State University’s Brandywine campus, calmly noted that each student’s experience is different and convinced the man that his nephew may find things will be better soon. But the interaction stuck with him, and he now believes it may have been indicative of a change in tone he’s found more often as he talks about the value of college with prospects in his upper-middle-class recruitment area.

“That student may have had a C-average and done nothing to enhance his college education besides attend class—and even do that intermittently. But the debt he acquired is front and center.”

Branch said past generations didn’t talk much about college debt and were less likely to question whether a bachelor’s degree was worth it.

“Then millennials came along and wanted to talk about it—a lot. And then the next generation came along and said ‘Oh, we’re not just going to talk about it, we’re going to make it public on every platform available.’”

Branch’s example shows how one big issue in higher education—student loans—has affected how, in two significant ways, the return on investment (ROI) for college is evaluated. There is a perceived value among those considering attending and an actual value for those who graduate and then calculate the cost of their education in relation to their earnings.

And debt is a significant factor in both of those scenarios, but only one of several growing forces determining whether college is actually or perceived to be, worth the time, money, and effort.

Changes Over Time

The issue of college value—a touchpoint in any discussion about higher ed at the kitchen table, the college admission office, or the highest levels of policymaking—has become even more prominent and complex.

It’s now commonly referred to as college’s return on investment, and experts say students and their families more often think of it in those terms rather than considering the value of the college experience or other less tangible ways college attendance matures and expands the thinking of young people.

But beyond that practical approach to the investment in higher education, college enrollment has been buffeted by a series of other forces, including the pandemic; broad publicity about college debt; the expanse of online learning; new thinking that one doesn’t need a degree for success; and generational changes that shift demographics, communication, and attitudes.

“Since the 1980s, postsecondary education has become the most well-traveled pathway to economic success,” says Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). He has written broadly on the issue and CEW ranks 4,500 colleges based on their return on investment. “However, today (higher education) is facing some very strong forces that are changing how people think about its value,” Carnevale says.

While data from Carnevale and other sources show that having a bachelor’s degree still results in significantly better earnings and a better life, there is mixed data about how valuable students and families believe it is. Meanwhile, specific pathways are increasingly shown to have a dramatically stronger payoff and students and families are more often becoming educated about those programs and majors—and choosing them.

Michael Dunn, dean of college and career counseling at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado, works with varied-income families with a wide range of postsecondary learning experiences.

“All of the students I work with understand that college is important, but they have a very much less comfortable relationship with debt than people I grew up with and want to be sure it is worth it,” he says.

Research shows that education in specific fields has a better ROI and that students are more aware of those distinctions.

“Now, in response, colleges are touting graduation rates and job placement. But kids are more savvy; they want to know if the university is producing data that includes working at McDonalds or Starbucks,” Dunn says. “They want specifics.”

Chris Horne, director of college counseling and alumni support at Girard College, a K–12 boarding school in Philadelphia that serves students with limited financial resources and with a single guardian or parent,  says he’s seen a similar trend.

“In the last five years, I’ve seen students and families examine the value of college more closely than in years past due to several factors. Some have seen people they know either drop out of college or be underemployed and high school counselors are more aware of non-college options that could benefit students, so they’re introducing families to these opportunities.”

The Data

Carnevale points out that the perceived value of college has diminished, though surveys vary on the amount and cause.

“College enrollment is declining, and recent research verifies the public’s skepticism about the value of postsecondary education,” he says. “Just half of Americans think the benefits of college are worth the cost, according to a recent survey.”

That Public Agenda report found that 51 percent of Americans say college is a questionable investment because of “high student loans and limited job opportunities.” It also reported that:

  • About 86 percent of Americans agree getting a college education can help adults advance their careers, including 92 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of Republicans.
  • However, 63 percent of Americans say higher education is too time consuming and expensive for working adults.
  • And two-thirds view higher education as “stuck in the past and unable to meet the needs of today’s students.”

A recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Bipartisan Policy Center indicates about 60 percent of Americans say a degree from college is worth the effort and cost. It says that results vary widely with political affiliation and age of respondents.

For instance, it reports that around 60 percent of those born from 1996 to 2012—Gen Z and millennials—say college is definitely or probably worth the investment. Only about 54 percent of Gen Xers, born from 1965 to 1980, and 59 percent of baby boomers, the adults born between 1946 and 1964, say it is worth it.

Another recent study by New America shows that overall the number of Americans who believe colleges have “a positive effect” on the country has declined 14 percent since the time the think tank started its annual survey in 2017. However, its research showed that 76 percent of those surveyed somewhat or strongly agree that “education beyond high school offers a good return on investment.”

Carnevale points out that the public’s perception about value often doesn’t match the actual return on the investment, which he has often promoted since becoming head of the Georgetown CEW in 2008.

His research shows that while roughly two-thirds of jobs required no more than a high school diploma 50 years ago, more than two-thirds of jobs require at least some postsecondary education or training today.

“Similarly, workers with postsecondary education now hold a larger share of good jobs—those that pay at least $45,000 at mid-career,” he says. In 1980, almost 30 percent of all good jobs went to workers with a high school diploma or less and now it’s about 20 percent, he says.

He notes that high school graduates, workers with some college education, and those with associate degrees all earn 28 percent or less of the amount earned by those with a bachelor’s degree.

According to Forbes magazine, government statistics show the median salary for workers with high school diplomas is $38,792, with an average unemployment rate of 3.7 percent as  f 2019. By contrast, the median salary for workers with bachelor’s degrees is $64,896, and their unemployment rate is about 2.2 percent.

“Over the course of their careers, college graduates can earn hundreds of thousands more than those who don’t attend college,” the author concludes.

Dunn believes that other factors should be weighed in any discussion about college value, including whether it improves the lives of nontraditional students. He hopes scales like the Social Mobility Index will become more prominent.

That scale measures “the extent to which a college or university educates more economically disadvantaged students (with family incomes below the national median) at lower tuition and graduates them into good paying jobs.” It calls for “focusing the chase for ‘prestige’ around lowering tuition, recruiting more economically disadvantaged students, and ensuring that enrolled students graduate into good paying jobs.”

He also believes the new generation of students’ interest in service may be underreported, though some  college rankings do offer students information about whether a college makes service a priority.

Other experts believe that colleges have failed at their job and the underperformance has been exacerbated by the pandemic and problems with the economy.

“There’s a key distinction to make between short- and long-term trends. In the short term, we see a hot labor market that’s leading employers to drop college degree requirements from job postings,” says Preston Cooper, senior fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP), who has recently completed a detailed evaluation of college ROI for the conservative think tank. “The result is lower ROI and fewer students attending college. But it’s anyone’s guess whether those economic trends will continue.

“In the long term, there’s definitely been a shift in perceptions: More and more students are realizing that not all college degrees are created equal. Students now understand that a bachelor’s degree isn’t an automatic ticket to financial success,” Cooper says, adding that colleges too often have not provided valuable options and the public is just more aware of it today.

FREOPP is highly critical of college costs and college value generally and argues for more direct accountability for higher education and less support.

In the Details

Carnevale emphasizes repeatedly that the actual value of a degree is very much dependent upon the program and college that are chosen and says students increasingly understand that. However, he believes there should be much more transparency about the return on investment of specific programs.

“A bachelor’s degree generally will still be the engine on the train and offer the best return. However, a lot of people will be told that is not true. There is an access-to-information problem here and students and families need to have good information that thoroughly explains how they can get value from a college degree,” he says.

Marie Morris, president of the Higher Education Consultants Association and founder of Beyond 18 College Consulting in Portland, Oregon, says, however, that student performance and student passion for a career is important in college choice and in the value they obtain.

She says data about the best careers for ROI should not keep students from following a career path that interests them or fills a societal need. And it should not cause family and advisers to excessively limit their exploration.

“I believe the college itself will not create a better job or income, it is what the student does with their college opportunity or experience. Outside of a few majors such as engineering and nursing, I am not convinced the major is that important. I think students should major in outdoor leadership because they love it, but make sure to perhaps have an internship or summer job at the bank too. That may be an extreme, but experiences like that make them employable.”

She and Dunn are concerned about an overemphasis on fields where the pay is the highest. They are alarmed by the decrease in students majoring in education, for instance.

“Education majors are being eliminated due to low interest and possibly low ROI,” Morris says. “Engineering will always remain high, especially when mom and dad get more concerned about how the investment pays off.”

James Paterson is a writer and former school counselor living in Lewes, Delaware.

This article originally appeared in the Journal for College Admission’s Fall 2022 issue.

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim

When 16-year-old Lydia’s high school counselor suggested she create a profile on Concourse—a new web-based platform where colleges can go to find students—she figured she didn’t have anything to lose.

“It was just filling out a couple of questions and I thought, ‘Why not?’” Lydia says. “It was very easy to sign up.”

After answering some questions about her interests, activities, goals, and her planned major, the process was done. Since Concourse keeps applicants anonymous during the initial stages of the process, her counselor uploaded a redacted PDF of her transcript. It was October 2021.

Within about a month, Lydia—then a senior at a charter school in Chicago—was getting offers from colleges throughout Illinois.

“I received about ten different offers with Concourse, and I only had to accept or decline those offers,” Lydia explains. “I wasn’t sure about the offers because there were some colleges I (hadn’t) heard about, so I had to do some research and make sure they were friendly.”

By “friendly,” Lydia said she meant a college that accepts undocumented students, such as herself, and that offers them more financial aid and provides information about other resources they can use. “Lydia” is a pseudonym to protect her identity as an undocumented student.

One college stood out from the rest—it happened to be the one that sent the first acceptance letter she got through Concourse.

“The first acceptance letter I received was from Knox College,” Lydia says. “I saw they offered me a $49,000 scholarship and that certainly is a lot.”

A year at Knox costs $63,585, which includes tuition, fees, as well as room and board.

“In my acceptance letter I got a scholarship of $49,000, but when I went for a college visit, I received my actual award letter with a scholarship of $59,000,” Lydia explains.

“I made sure they had the major I was looking for and even though it’s three hours away from home it has many benefits for me as an undocumented student,” says Lydia, who plans to major in biochemistry with a minor in German studies. Her ultimate career goal is to become a dental surgeon.

One of the most striking things about Lydia’s experience, says Joe Morrison, CEO of Concourse Global Enrollment, a Brooklyn, New York-based firm that operates Concourse, is how quickly Lydia was able to receive and accept an offer compared to the traditional college application process.

“In terms of timeline, the student received her admission offer from Knox College via Concourse on Nov. 19 and completed the ‘interested’ form on Nov. 21,” Morrison says. “Note how much quicker and simpler this is compared to the traditional application process, where even Early Admission/Early Decision applicants don’t get decisions until mid-late December.”

Lydia’s experience is what college admission could look like in the coming years as more and more colleges turn to Concourse to help form their classes of incoming students, and as more counselors use the platform as part of helping students get into college.

Concourse started out serving international students in 2020, but it began serving US students in the Chicago region in fall of 2021. Morrison says Concourse plans to expand to six additional regions this fall—Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Greater New York City, and Philadelphia—and to double the number of colleges it works with from 100 to 200.

Admission experts say Concourse is a game-changer that could simplify the college admission process and make the system more equitable for students from families of lesser economic means. But those same experts also warn that Concourse could create additional work for students and—depending on which colleges participate and how colleges select students—it could also limit student options and leave existing inequalities intact.

“The Concourse approach creates a reordering of the traditional sequence of college admissions and adds a little more transparency about the reality that colleges are seeking students to enroll in their institutions,” says OiYan Poon, associate professor affiliate in the School of Education at Colorado State University.

“Most institutions struggle each year to ‘make their class,’” Poon says. “I think the Concourse approach somewhat—but not entirely—reduces some of the anxiety for both college hopefuls and institutions in the enrollment system.”

Poon notes that research has shown how college-eligible first-generation students of color are sometimes discouraged by counselors and teachers from applying to highly resourced four-year institutions.

“One way the Concourse approach might disrupt this chilling effect is by taking away the requirement placed on students to figure out where to apply, which might subsequently open up wider arrays of college opportunities for these students,” Poon says.

Taylor Odle, assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says it is noteworthy that Concourse “comes from outside the higher education space.”

“This isn’t a consortium of colleges or universities—it’s a private company that’s identified this need and said that students and families can’t wait for institutions to fix the broken admissions system,” Odle says.

Jennifer A. Delaney, associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says the Concourse model changes traditional college admission in two important ways—being proactive and offering a guarantee of admission.

“The system is proactive in pushing information to students instead of relying on students to search for colleges,” Delaney says. “This reduces the need for social and cultural capital to navigate the college search process and likely makes the process more equitable for students of different backgrounds within the Concourse system.”

Delaney says the offers of guaranteed admission are also of value to students.

“It is important informationally in that students no longer need to guess which institutions will admit them but instead already know where they have been admitted.” Delaney says. “There is also value in the guarantee since it gives students ‘a bird in the hand’ and a clearly defined pathway through which they can enter a postsecondary institution.”

Concourse is not the only organization that takes this approach. As reported in July in Inside Higher Ed, an organization called SAGE Scholars will begin this year to offer some of its member schools a chance to view the profiles of students and admit them directly. But SAGE started out in 1995 as an organization that helps make higher education more affordable through “tuition rewards.” The rewards are paid for by employers who offer Sage as a benefit for their employees to help their children apply to colleges. The “rewards” are then converted into tuition discounts of up to 25%, according to SAGE’s website.

“The main differences between Concourse and Sage are the socioeconomic status of the students, and that the colleges participating in Sage are all private,” writes Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, in a July 11 article.

Odle says he worries that Concourse portfolios may not contain enough information to enable colleges to increase the diversity of the students they admit.

“If the portfolios that colleges use to admit students mainly feature GPA and standardized test scores, we already know these pieces of information fall sharply along racial and socioeconomic lines and have led to much of the inequality we see today,” Odle says. “Similarly, features of students’ extracurricular activities reflect longstanding social and economic inequality given that some students can literally afford to participate while others cannot. Portfolios should work to carefully reflect students’ high school contexts that can be masked by these standardized pieces of information.”

Morrison, of Concourse, says a decision was made to keep student profiles “lean” because most colleges do not have the resources to assess student portfolios at scale.

“GPA and standardized test scores can be a useful tool to narrow a pool of prospective students to the point where an admissions officer can afford to take the time to do a deeper dive on each student,” Morrison says. Students can upload additional materials if they have them, he says, and counselors are encouraged to write notes about each student to contextualize their profile for admissions officers.

“It ensures a low barrier to entry for students by not asking for too much information up front, while still enabling admissions officers to gather the information needed to develop a richer picture of each student,” Morrison says. “Admissions officers can even play a consultative role as they request additional information, helping counselors and students understand exactly what they need. This kind of guidance also bridges information gaps and helps create more equity in the admission process.”

Odle notes that some states—such as Idaho, South Dakota and Hawaii—have begun to proactively admit high school students to colleges based on information the state already has, such as GPA and test scores.

In states that employ this practice, students don’t even need to create a portfolio like they do with Concourse, Odle says.

“Concourse needs to have student portfolios with these data because they do not already have access to student ‘success’ metrics—but states already have that information,” Odle says. “The real ‘game-changer’ would be if more states started actually using that data in a proactive way to equalize the college admissions process.

“I am happy that Concourse is doing this because it represents the type of disruption that we need in this space—but we should always be pushing further.”

Keith Herbert, director of postsecondary outcomes at Civitas Education Partners (IL)—and Lydia’s counselor at her charter high school—says he decided to give Concourse a try after hearing about the platform from a colleague who works at EAB’s College Greenlight/Cappex, a collective of advisers that has a partnership with Concourse. Greenlight’s website says its mission is specifically to increase college access and completion for underrepresented and historically underserved students.

“Part of my job is finding programs that would enhance the postsecondary process for our students and although I didn’t really have much to go on, I was intrigued at the program based on the initial list of schools involved,” Herbert says of Concourse. “These were all schools I put in kids’ lists over the past decade and some would apply, but there wasn’t a real draw.

“This seemed like a way to change the conversation between my (counseling) staff and the kids,” Herbert says. “If there is an easy way to show kids they would be accepted and the substantial scholarship offers were there, we’d have those conversations with kids early.”

Some experts worry that Concourse may limit the number of schools from which students are eligible to choose. Or that the schools may not be of high quality and don’t do a good job of helping low-income students graduate.

Morrison, the CEO at Concourse, says the market will determine if that’s true. “College counselors decide whether we are delivering sufficient admission offers to their students and whether the colleges are good and reputable,” Morrison says. “Counselors that have a good experience getting offers for their students via Concourse will come back and bring more of their students to the platform. Otherwise, the counselors will stop inviting their students. The system governs itself over time.”

 Colleges currently can pay a “match fee” of $100 to $250 per student or buy a subscription to Concourse. To prevent third parties from using Concourse to get access to students or student information, a college cannot use Concourse without first making an arrangement to do so.

Herbert, Lydia’s counselor, says Concourse is in fact connecting students with high-quality schools, even if they aren’t well known.

“For us, it changed the conversation with kids for lesser-known schools that are really high quality,” Herbert says. “If as a counselor I know Student ‘A’ not only is accepted, but I also know their scholarship offer, and I can do the math with (federal and state student financial aid)—I can actually tell kids how affordable their options are months before most students are doing that,” Herbert explains. “That gives me and my team plenty of time to work more individually with students.

“In previous years, we were waiting until late February or March and then we have 220 seniors, and everybody is scrambling,” Herbert adds. Civitas manages three charter schools in Chicago.

Herbert says students found the Concourse interface easy to use.

“The other thing it did was gave us a tool to say: ‘Hey, go on Concourse, click on the messaging tab, and ask that question,’” Herbert says. Concourse’s messaging tab, he explained, allows students to ask a college’s admission representative questions directly in a text format.

 “The communication tab was similar to texting, and kids felt better about that compared to email,” Herbert said.

Another standout feature is how some colleges on Concourse match certain majors to the information that students provided.

Ordinarily, Herbert says, students might get a list of majors and pass many of them over. “But here they were told: ‘We offer this—check it out,’” Herbert says. “In an ever-expanding world of specific majors being added, this really changes the game for a few kids.”

Morrison, the Concourse CEO, says counselors can still work with students to submit conventional applications afterward if they aren’t happy with the offers they get through Concourse.

Odle, the University of Wisconsin professor, says if a student uses Concourse and still needs to apply to other colleges via their traditional process, “then Concourse itself represents another hurdle students and families have to jump over.”

“Unless Concourse completely replaces a student’s application process, it literally adds (to) the complexity it seeks to reduce,” Odle says. “This does the same for counselors and college advisers. Supporting students’ completion of a Concourse portfolio may add work to an already-strained advising system.”

Herbert says he can attest to that.

Asked if he would recommend Concourse to his fellow counselors, he said he would do so with a grain of salt.

“Like anything, it’s not a fix and with my kids, it didn’t take work off our plate. It actually added to it as it was another thing we as the postsecondary staff had to remind students (about), chase them down, have them click the right buttons, et cetera,” Herbert says. “But I’d still recommend it if a team wanted to find out if this changed the conversation in a way that was meaningful.

“That said, like literally any tech, you have to embrace the messy iteration of implementation,” Herbert says. “I learned a lot from my first year of using it and made mistakes I won’t next year.”

Asked what kinds of mistakes he made, Herbert said he neglected to have all students upload their personal statements.

“It would have taken another five minutes in class to walk them through that,” Herbert says. “Also SAT scores—there was one partner college that only accepted kids with scores submitted. That might have been their processing error or I missed something, but few kids got in.”

Hebert also says he wishes he had all of the students download the phone-based app for Concourse—at least at the end of the process—in order to take advantage of the push notifications.

“Most kids do not check email with fidelity and assume mostly everything is spam,” Herbert says. “Many of the Concourse messages notifying them to check the app got lost in the rinse cycle and remained unread. But also, so did a lot of their acceptance emails and verification requests.”

Herbert says he sees a need for “one central hub for communication” given the multiple application platforms that students use these days.

“Between Slate, the Common App, Coalition, plus the thousands of college portals, it’s too much,” Herbert says.

He says there will always be a need for a human touch.

“It’s really just another tool to manage and needs integration into a program to be a meaningful developmental experience for kids,” Herbert says. “At least for my kids, I could never just give this to them and their parents and expect it to be used with fidelity and to the highest potential. My students are mostly first-gen kids and still need personal support.”

Lydia—who had also applied to colleges using the Common App—says she would recommend students use both. But she is keenly aware of the difference between the two platforms.

“In the Common App you apply for the colleges you want, you look for the college,” Lydia says. “And in Concourse the college looks for you.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a journalist living in Washington, DC.

It was only a few decades ago that rural students seemed to be absent from the college admission landscape. But today, rural students are becoming more important to colleges and universities that want to diversify their student populations and improve access to higher education.

By James Paterson

This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition (Number 254) of the Journal of College Admission

Lorenzo Gamboa has an easy way of connecting with kids from small towns and rural areas as director of diversity, inclusion, and outreach at Santa Clara University in California. It’s his personality and training, but it’s also because he knows all about their experience—he lived it.

Gamboa graduated with just seven others from high school in Aguilar, a remote southern Colorado town of about 450 people where Ringo’s Grocery Mart and the Sunset Tavern are among the few businesses along the four blocks of Main Street.

He finished in the top of his class and became perhaps the only local graduate to ever go on to a private four-year institution, but he hopes he is not the last. He believes as colleges wisely make recruiting rural students a greater focus, they are also finding those students are valuable beyond filling seats and bolstering slumping enrollment—and they will build on those efforts in places like Aguilar.

“Rural students have become the new unicorn that might help us increase numbers, but colleges will also find they offer a lot more,” he says. “There are golden nuggets if they search a little bit for them.”

“The best thing you can do is treat each student as if they are the only one who matters and find out what is important to them. I have rural kids who live on a farm but also students whose parents are double Ph.D.s.”

There are increasing reports about colleges doing just that, but Gamboa and others who work with the population say such efforts may require admission professionals to carefully consider some of the challenges these students face with the process—and their different needs and preferences. At the same time, experts say, it is important to drop some general assumptions about rural regions and the students they produce, recognizing that each area and student is different.


Professionals who work with rural students say they do, however, generally offer some unique characteristics.

A sense of community is important to them—so they often can become appreciative and engaged members of the college community, Gamboa notes, and they can “add to the housing models of community success that everyone is always looking to improve.”

“They understand what it takes and what it means to work hard, and they may value the degree more at times,” he says. “They have heart, desire, and grit and tend not to sweat the small stuff because they have become masters at

“For example,” he says, “they may have gotten up before dawn to work on the family farm, prepped for the community board meeting before school, dressed up to be captain of sports or cheerleading teams, and returned home to do it over again. If they order Uber Eats they can appreciate the work it took to get that burger on the bun and cook the french fries They’ve done it.”

While Gamboa’s assessment may be anecdotal, it is backed up by others in higher education who suggest that rural students have value beyond enrollment numbers.

Jon Westover is associate vice provost and director of admissions at North Carolina State University, which has a reputation for supporting rural communities in the state and supporting rural students on campus. He says their recruitment is a key part of his department’s effort.

He sees some of the positive characteristics Gamboa describes, but notes that colleges may not recruit rural students because of misconceptions they have— broad generalities about rural areas, for instance, that can limit the effectiveness of recruitment.

“There is a myth that rural students tend to be white farmers,” says Daniel Showalter, an Eastern Mennonite University (VA) professor who was one of the four authors of Why Rural Matters, a detailed report on rural education and the college readiness of students from those regions. “This may have been true several decades ago, but the demographics of the rural population is shifting quickly and is becoming less white and less agricultural. ‘Rural’ looks very different in different regions around the US.”

Showalter’s research showed that about one in five students attend a rural school but they may not get as much attention from colleges because incomes are generally lower in rural areas and research has shown colleges aim recruitment at areas with higher per capita incomes.


“There is a misconception that rural students are all poor, also, and that isn’t true,” says Gamboa. “And there is also this idea that rural communities and rural families don’t care about education, but the truth is that schools and education are often at the center of the rural communities and the families there.”

There is also an inflated concern that rural students won’t be happy at a larger school or a school far from home, but Sarah Soule, postsecondary planning coordinator at Union High School in Middlebury, Vermont, says that if they have the right information about a school before attending and the right preparation and support on campus they can be very successful.

“The best thing you can do is treat each student as if they are the only one who matters and find out what is important to them. I have rural kids who live on a farm but also students whose parents are double Ph.D.s,” she says.

She also notes that it may be assumed rural students are less successful academically or less committed to education, which is not accurate.

Showalter’s data does show that about 10 percent of rural students passed an Advanced Placement test, half the percentage of students in urban districts, which may reduce their attractiveness to some schools. In addition, research in the past has shown that rural students are considerably less likely to be admitted a top-50 university, and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that about 56 percent of rural and urban students enroll in college while about 62 percent of suburban students do.

But research by Showalter’s team also showed that in many states rural students performed better academically; they took the SAT and ACT at a similar rate as those in other areas and dual enrollment courses at twice the pace of other students.

“Region could even be important to talk about,” says Showalter. “Even when we see states ranking high in rural poverty, they’re probably going to have some affluent rural outlier districts in the state and vice versa. Averages are the general trend, but there is quite a bit of variance from state-to-state and district-to-district.

That variation heightens the need to study a variety of factors when considering recruitment in a particular school, district, or state, he notes.

“I suppose the best approach is to spend time in those places, or give rural students a place on campus or in the admissions process to tell their stories and be heard.”

Westover agrees: “There are two pieces of advice we use in recruiting rural students. We try and not generalize about who they are, or what majors they might be interested in,” he says. “It also is critical to get to know the school and the environment. That is why it is so important for us to travel to these high schools and meet their counselors.”


Gamboa admits that recruiting rural students may require some resourcefulness—visiting a remote school with eight graduates and not a lot of connections to higher education may not, for instance, offer the best return on investment. He says, however, a visit increases in value if admission offices and high school officials believe they are building a college-going culture over time.

“They might provide a program for an assembly to a whole school—even much younger students. Then the payoff can be longer term.”

Gamboa says on such visits they would find that rural students may have different strengths and experiences. They may value membership in the Future Farmers of America, for instance, or Boy Scouts, and college representatives may be
competing more often with military recruiters, who he believes get more attention from students in rural areas.

Often the popular theory that “college isn’t for everyone,” which rightfully gives students the justification to pursue other avenues, can be overemphasized in rural areas, experts say, and limit student aspirations.

Their schools also may have understaffed counseling offices, and not have counselors specifically assigned to help with college access. More students are likely to lack broadband service, too, which makes so much of the exploration and application process challenging—and their ability to get up-to-date fundamental information.

“They may need help with some information and basic steps,” Soule says.

Admission representatives should remember to be sensitive to the differences in a rural school, she says. She recalls that a college representative visiting her school told students to take out their laptops, not realizing that a sizable number of the students didn’t have laptops and several didn’t even have access to the internet.

“It embarrassed them and made her look out of touch,” she says.


Margaret Jenkins, founder and director of the college consulting firm Palouse Pathways in Moscow, Idaho, says that college representatives and high school counselors should begin working with rural students headed to college earlier than they might with other students.

“Many young high schoolers are open to possibilities, but as they go through high school, they settle into pursuing the narrower range of options more readily available,” she says.

She also says professionals working with them should engage their families in the process early and appreciate that they may need some fundamental information about higher ed processes and structures.

“Don’t assume they know about the CSS, or liberal arts colleges, or other things well known in other college-going communities,” she says. “Don’t assume their parents are closeminded about possibilities but do make sure you talk to them about affordability and safety and support for their student. They have questions and concerns even if they don’t express them.”

Jenkins is also one of the founding members of NACAC’s Rural and Small Town Special Interest Group. That group’s mission is “to bring rural and small town admissions and college counseling professionals, as well as those committed to rural and small town education, together to increase college access and success, promote college-going culture in rural areas, and support counselors and students at rural and small town schools.”

Showalter says that having students and families visit a campus is the best way for them to become more comfortable with the specific school and the college experience generally.

Soule notes that partnerships between high school counselors and college professionals are perhaps even more important in rural areas. She notes that her relationship with a soughtafter private school in upstate New York has brought that college some of her school’s best students and given her a pipeline for students she wants to assist.

James Paterson is a writer and former school counselor living in Lewes, Delaware.

By Safiya Johnson

This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition (Number 253) of the Journal of College Admission

Oh, letters of recommendation—the bane of existence for many adults and students every admission cycle.

I have written a dozen letters of recommendation for my former interns and several more for my Class of 2021 seniors as a postsecondary counselor. As the number of letters of recommendation that I had to write grew, the more I relied on templates to introduce my school and a student’s academic record to admission counselors. I also relied on student intake forms, or brag sheets, to quickly get to know my students. (If you’re seeking inspiration for a brag sheet template, see examples AB, and C. And know that leading a lesson on filling in the brag sheet and providing examples for students can only help improve the quality of brag sheets they submit.)

Thanks to my years of experience as an admission counselor, I felt confident in my ability to discern what makes a strong letter of recommendation and how to write them well. I spent years reading  between the lines to identify warning signs and faint praise.

Unfortunately, I have seen my fair share of letters of recommendation that raised concerns about the learning environment students found themselves in. Letters that hint at racial or gendered bias and barriers within the school. Why did this Black male student have to advocate for years to take Advanced Placement classes? Why is it  this young woman had to advocate to be in a STEM cohort? Why was their ability questioned before they could enroll in a curriculum that is heavily favored by admission counselors?

I am ashamed to admit that although I have led approximately 10 letters of recommendation writing workshops as an admission counselor, none of those sessions explicitly touched on gender or racial bias. I hope to right that wrong  by sharing how writers can check their implicit and explicit biases during the writing process.

But first, what is implicit bias and what patterns have researchers found?

Implicit biases are unconscious stereotypes and assumptions that lead people to favor those who share their same identities (or in-group members). For instance, why do people favor men over women for certain jobs, assume Asians are foreigners, and associate white people with positive adjectives and attributes more quickly than Black people? These associations are the result of socialization in a gendered and racialized world. These lead to real-world discrimination and privilege-hoarding. For instance, who is admitted into programs, hired, and promoted leads to racialized and gendered gaps in wages and educational attainment.

Research on graduate school, academic jobs, and college admission letters of recommendation have found varying degrees of gender and racial bias that impact admission and hiring outcomes for marginalized people. For instance, letters of recommendation are typically several words longer for male applicants. Writers usually use more communal adjectives (i.e., nurturing, kind, warm, polite, helpful) to describe female applicants than agentic adjectives (i.e., competent, independent, ambitious). Additionally, letters for female and racial minority applicants typically use more grindstone adjectives (i.e., hardworking, careful, dedicated, thorough) to describe them, implying they possess less natural ability or talent (i.e., genius, brilliant, talented, capable).

To help writers catch gender bias, some universities and organizations have created gender bias calculators, which you can find here.

However, I argue that the best way to catch instances of gender and racial bias in your writing is to compare the letters that you write for similarly able white male applicants to white female applicants and to male and female minority applicants. Conduct quality control checks before you hit submit.

Additionally, school counselors—who often guide students on when, how, and whom to ask for a letter of recommendation—should lead discussions on gender and racial bias. If and when you invite a university or nonprofit partner to lead a recommendation writing workshop, be sure to ask them how they will discuss gender and racial bias in their workshop. If they will not, develop your own training that touches on these sensitive topics.

According to NACAC’s 2019 State of College Admission report, 54 percent of colleges place considerable or moderate importance on letters of recommendation when making an admission decision. A lot (i.e., program admission and scholarship dollars) is on the line. I can recall several times when I wrote on a reader sheet, “Recs really make this applicant shine” and often referred to phrases within letters of recommendation when making my case in the admission committee for why a student was an excellent fit for our university. From recommendation letters, I could see what a student brought to the classroom and school community.

This was often true for QuestBridge applicants who were first-generation college students from modest financial backgrounds and did not know how to “sell” themselves to an admission committee. They often left out how impressive their strong grades were in the context of their heavy home responsibilities or lack of certain educational amenities that the typical wealthier student has access to, such as Wi-Fi and a personal computer.

Believe me: Your letters can make a big difference in highlighting which applicants are the standout and beloved students in your community.

So how can you check bias in your letters and write a ringing, bias-free endorsement for every applicant, especially marginalized students?

  1. Avoid invoking stereotypes.
    Example“For a [ethnic group] student, they speak good English” or “She controlled her emotions well while facing initial setbacks” or “Unlike most African Americans, s/he values education.” Hopefully, these examples easily raise red flags. Always ask yourself, if I were to say this to my student or their families, would they be offended? Is this a microaggression? If you’re not sure, ask a colleague who shares the same identity or identities as that student.
  2. Avoid doubt-raisers and negative language.
    Example: “While not the best student I have ever had, s/he….” Or “Although I was worried about their ability to perform well in my class, I….”. 
    That language raises concerns: “Well, why aren’t they the best student that you’ve ever had? What concerns did you have about their ability”? Always focus on the positives, even when discussing growth points.
  3. Avoid faint praise.
    Example: “They worked hard in my class” or “They have a pleasant demeanor” or “Their work was satisfactory.” See how these are neutral terms that do not elevate an applicant or highlight their uniqueness? It is assumed that students put effort into their schoolwork, follow instructions well, and are collegial in the classroom. Try to highlight different positive agentic adjectives and talents. Speaking of which….
  4. Focus on accomplishments more than personality traits.
    As mentioned earlier, research finds that letters written for female applicants often focus on their good community membership traits versus ability and talent. See this article (written for academic job recommendation writers, not college applicants) for additional tips and lists of adjectives to steer clear of and adjectives to use instead.
  5. Ask permission before including sensitive information to avoid sharing irrelevant info.
    Before you share sensitive information that would not be evident in the questions that are typically asked on a college admission application, ask your student if they feel comfortable with you sharing that information in your letter. Does this student want you to share that they are undocumented or have autism? A quick conversation or email contextualizing how you plan to share that information (and why!) will suffice and honor that student’s decision.
  6. Share a story (or two) versus listing a string of adjectives.
    Always share one or two vivid stories that highlight the student’s talent, ability, and personality. This will bring the applicant to life. These stories should be the bulk of your letter of recommendation. But if time and numbers are not on your side, bullet points that share shorter two-to-three sentence vignettes instead of full-fledged paragraphs will also suffice.
  7. Quality check your letters of recommendation. Read your letters back to yourself and ask yourself, if I changed this applicant’s race, gender, or pronouns would I use different adjectives and examples? Would I write a different letter or avoid bringing up their identities altogether? If so, the good news is there’s still time to change your letter and check the bias that exists within it.

In closing, a recommendation for school-based staff: Discuss racial and ethnic bias every season before students request letters and while your colleagues write and review their own.

Admission counselors: Ask yourself, is this a biased letter? How does this description match (or not match) the others found within the file?

And to all: Always be mindful.

Safiya Johnson is a college and career coach at a South Side Chicago Public Schools high school. Prior to working in urban education, Johnson worked for the University of Chicago (IL) Office of College Admissions as a director of community initiatives and senior assistant director of admissions. Connect with Johnson on Twitter or LinkedIn.

By Safiya Johnson

College Essays and the African American Vernacular

Last year was my first year serving in a full-time, school-based position at a predominately Black public charter school. In college, I interned at another predominately Black Chicago charter school that was affiliated with my university. That experience showed me that I love working with young Black people. People who remind me of myself. Individuals who grow up working class, poor, or “poor adjacent” in Chicago’s often violent South and West Side communities but aspire to make it out of the hood and on to college and career. I love Black children and Black people, despite messaging that I should not. However, last year, I ran into a big dilemma: our students’ writing.

In November, I asked all 86 of my seniors (95 percent of whom were Black) to share their personal statement with me and their elective teachers for feedback. As I began to read and review, sadness and disappointment overtook me. Our students did not break their ideas down into paragraphs. They did not capitalize “I” or proper nouns. They left off punctuation marks. And their writing was riddled with serious English language violations.

When I brought this to others’ attention, they all lambasted what I found. “Yes, this a problem we are aware of.” “Yes, it’s a shame!” Some posited, “Our students write like they text.” But upon further review, I noticed that the students were not simply writing as they text. They were writing in a completely different language: African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

AAVE has been well-documented and researched by linguists and debated by urban education policymakers. Not all African Americans or Black Americans speak AAVE. However, it is commonly spoken by urban Black Americans and found in urban, working-class communities. AAVE is also the preferred dialect of internet-speak. AAVE is revered as cool, witty, warm, and urban by internet influencers. It is also a dialect or language that is often viewed as “less than” by speakers of professional Standard American English (SAE). Some people discriminate against AAVE speakers by viewing them as less educated, poorer, and ill-prepared for professional or academic settings because they do not utilize “proper grammar.” However, AAVE has its own distinct grammar and syntax laws that have been developed over centuries of use.

I speak AAVE more than SAE in interpersonal and romantic relationships. It is more natural to me than SAE as someone who grew up in a hyper-segregated Chicago community. I also struggled with codeswitching between AAVE and SAE when addressing predominately white and upper-middle class audiences as an admission counselor for the University of Chicago. For some listeners, this inability to consistently remain in SAE made me appear more “relatable” and “folksy.” For some, I reminded them of home. For others, I appeared more emotive and comforting. I argue AAVE is professional, despite attacks and misunderstanding by individuals who do not speak AAVE.

I know that my students are largely not writing for other native AAVE speakers. Instead, their writing will be perceived as incorrect and uneducated by a profession that is still predominately white and privileged (admission counselors). Though I can read their writing and understand AAVE—our native tongue—I am forced to translate their language to SAE as an editor or peer reviewer.

This year, I will adjust my approach with the students. I want them to celebrate their bilingualism. To know that AAVE is, yes, revered on the internet and in their communities. And I will remind them that they are writing for community outsiders who expect SAE.

When I worked for UChicago, I must have presented at least 40 essay writing workshops to various public school students. For predominately white audiences, I always said, “Write the way you talk or speak. Do not try to use unnaturally large words to sound smarter,” because that was the common problem I saw from upper-middle class and middle-class students. They used the thesaurus feature of their writing software to death. They no longer sounded authentic. Even worse, sometimes they misused words. However, that advice—“Write the way you speak”—cannot be given to speakers of AAVE or many other bilingual students. Instead, I have to say: “Write the way you would speak at a job interview in downtown Chicago.” I must specify, downtown Chicago because of hyper-segregation. My students work retail, food service, and grocery store jobs in predominately Black and poor neighborhoods where SAE may not be the default dialect.

Given this hyper-segregation, it is rare for my students to have to codeswitch into SAE outside of school. However, they see examples of their elders codeswitching when talking on the phone, visiting the doctor’s office, or in their workplaces as some TikTok videos have demonstrated. (See example Aexample Bexample C, and example D.)

Teaching English to non-native speakers of SAE is hard. It has been argued for decades that schools should adopt an English as a Second Language (ESL) approach to teaching SAE to urban Black students. However, there has been a lot of pushback from Black families in labeling their students as ESL students, which has in part made readily available and downloadable content hard to find. While researching for this article, the only resource that I found for teaching SAE as a second language for AAVE speakers was this PBS unit on AAVE—an inadequate source for a task this large.

So, what can we do in admission and in urban schools right now to help native AAVE speakers adopt SAE for their college essays and interviews? Well, I argue that we discuss AAVE: Its rich history, its rightful place in society, and, yes, all the negative social connotations it holds in out-group communities. Teach students that there is a proper place and time to use AAVE in professional writing and speech (see Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eve Ewing, Langston Hughes, etc.). You too can be great poets and orators. However, for admission purposes, you must adopt SAE. “Write as you would for a downtown—read predominately White and rich environment—interview.”

As admission readers, remember that some Americans are not native SAE speakers. Please remember the rich diversity, multiculturalism, and multilingualism that exists in this nation and across the world. Allow students to write dialogue in their native tongue, be it Spanish, Creole, or AAVE. Try to walk in their shoes instead of marking them down for grammar rules that even you cannot understand. Learn more about AAVE, race, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Be generous and patient and seek help from a native AAVE speaker as a second reader if needed. But, hopefully, with time, you will have read those texts on your own and will have developed an understanding and appreciation (not appropriation) of AAVE.

Thank you for focusing on race and inclusion in your everyday lives and work. Stay up. Stay you. And if applicable, stay Black.

Safiya Johnson recently served as a postsecondary counselor at a predominately Black Chicago Public School charter school that is located on the Near South Side of Chicago. Prior to working in urban education, Johnson worked for the University of Chicago Office of College Admissions as a director of community initiatives and senior assistant director of admissions. She holds a Master of Education in education policy and management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from the University of Chicago. She is a native South Sider and sociologist at heart who loves exploring neighborhoods and the arts scene in Chicago. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter

Teamwork and communication are the foundation of successful counselor-CBO partnerships.

When you boil it down, public school counselors and community-based organizations focused on higher education have one common goal: to get their students to college.

But public school counselors, especially those in schools with underserved student populations, also have to juggle a lot of other duties: managing class scheduling for entire grade levels or the whole school, helping families navigate special education requirements like individualized education plans, and attending to students’ often fragile mental health and emotional needs.

College counseling can understandably get moved to the back burner on a public school counselor’s crowded stove. That’s where community-based organizations (CBOs) that help students get to and through come in.

To establish a strong relationship and set students up for success, public school counselors and CBO leaders suggest three things:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate—on both sides
  • Pay attention to a school community’s nuances to ensure you’re serving them well
  • Figure out how to take work off a school counselor’s plate
Communication is Key

The most important part of the relationship between Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Scholars, a CBO that serves “academically ambitious first-generation students from under-resourced communities in Chicago,” is regular communication, said Rachael Accavitti, vice president of programs at Chicago Scholars.

Chicago Scholars hosts a yearly lunch for counselors to update them on students’ success and plans for the next year. One of their team members also meets regularly with someone from Chicago Public Schools’ Office of School Counseling and Postsecondary Advising for updates from both sides.

Recently, Chicago Scholars and Chicago Public Schools expanded those lines of communication even further by signing a data-sharing agreement, Accavitti said. That allows both sides to see a student’s progress in Chicago Scholars’ program and empowers the counselors to give students a nudge if they’re late on completing a portion of the program.

And that demonstrates the ultimate goal of this increased communication, Accavitti said: to support the students.

“I’ve seen, especially in the last year [during the COVID-19 pandemic], the way in which it is easier for a student in this virtual space to not show up, to not be reached,” she said. “I think that (having) more trusted people in their lives…reaching out to provide this support, to create this net of resources to catch them, has been vital.”

Pay Attention to Nuance

When Jennifer Nuechterlein, college and career counselor at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey, has meetings with her students, they almost always include their family members.

She works in a rural/suburban school district about two hours from New York City and said her students’ families are heavily involved in their college decisions these days. Candice Mackey, college counselor at Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES) in Los Angeles, sees the same thing, despite working in a much more urban environment than Nuechterlein.

For Mackey, the CBOs that succeed in her community are those who offer wraparound services to students and their families—and she thinks that’s key regardless of where your school is based.

“You’re always going to have working parents in your community, and they’re always going to need support through the weekends, in different languages, and in different formats—virtual and in-person,” Mackey said.

Ruth Lopez is one example of how paying attention to a student’s nuanced situation helps. Lopez is a senior at LACES, graduating in June 2021 and heading to College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. In addition to meeting with Mackey regularly, she also met with an adviser from College Match, a community-based organization that helps “talented students from low-income families get into and graduate from the nation’s top colleges and universities.”

Ruth is Latina and her parents’ only child. It’s hard for her family to talk about money, she said, and her parents worried about her living away from home. But Mackey and Ruth’s College Match adviser worked together to answer all of the family’s questions—bringing in Spanish translators to talk to Ruth’s parents, sitting with Ruth as she video chatted with The College Board, and giving her personalized feedback on her essays.

Having both her counselor and her adviser in her corner greatly eased Ruth’s mind, she said.

“They can answer questions the other one can’t answer,” she said. “That made it easier for me to ask them questions and not feel shy about it, because they would discuss it and brainstorm together.”

Make Counselors’ Lives Easier

Learning that nuance has also been key for Peggy Jenkins, the founding director of Palouse Pathways, a community-based organization in Moscow, Idaho, that provides information and resources on college and career planning to students in the area. The schools Palouse Pathways serves vary widely: Some are in logging or farming communities, while others are in college towns. Learning what those counselors’ work environments are actually like has been key, Jenkins said.

The other key: Offering to “take something off counselors’ plates,” Jenkins said. When she and one of her board members met with principals and counselors from the Moscow school district a few years ago, they asked that question, and the counselors immediately asked for help with preparing students for college admission tests.

For three to four years, Palouse Pathways was able to train and pay a few local teachers and hold test prep classes in the evenings. This year, a school district approached the organization and asked them to write a grant for summer classes to help students recapture credits they may have lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working to help in a way the schools want and need is immensely beneficial for the counselor-CBO relationship, Jenkins said.

Counselors “are people who are mostly really overworked and stressed out,” Jenkins said. “If they don’t respond to you, it’s not necessarily because they don’t want you there. If you can get a working knowledge of what life is like for them and what their responsibilities are, that can make a big difference.”

Pressley Frevert is a freelance writer living in North Carolina.

By Shanell Leggins


Building a college list has never been just about an institution’s academic merits. An array of other factors—including location, size, and cost—must be considered. And new research highlights the importance of further expanding that list to include a college’s track record related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.

Recent data published by the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) found that campus community impacts student success by 44 percent. Students are more likely to thrive when they have access to people who understand and relate to them and when they can gain support from programs that value their culture and ideology. Including such factors in the college search process is imperative, and counselors play a critical role in guiding students and families as they weigh these important considerations.

Factors for Students to Consider

Counselors can tell students to research and gather information, but prospective applicants need to have a clear vision of what to look for when making the determination if diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is valued at a particular school.

In 2021, almost every school has a mission statement that involves DEI and has multiple pictures plastered over their website that illustrate a diverse student body. To truly dive deep, students must look past the rhetoric and ask for data examining the success of BIPOC students, such as graduation rates. Data that shows faculty diversity, or lack thereof, can also be a strong indicator of a college’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. In school districts and universities alike, faculty representation often reflects the student body and can also influence pedagogy and curriculum.

Stacy Richardson, director of college counseling at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington DC, advises her students to look closely at what’s available at each school on their list. “Is there a thriving community of students to whom you can relate? Do they have student organizations and administrative offices in place to support diverse students? Do they have a chief diversity officer? What are the issues students are passionate about? What is being said in the student newspaper and the local newspaper? What is the area that surrounds the campus like—are there places for you to explore and feel comfortable (restaurants, shops, etc.)? Can you be yourself and not worry about your safety?” Richardson said she asks her students. She also advises students to research whether there have been hate crimes on campus, and if so, the repercussions and resolutions.

In a recent issue of its quarterly publication, the Rostrum, the ASCCC outlined other factors to look for when researching colleges. Considerations include equity-minded organizations that BIPOC students can connect with, testimonials shared by current or former underrepresented students; scholarships and grants available for underrepresented students; and the presence of celebratory events for students on campus and online at the end of each academic semester. Less obvious aspects to inquire about are whether faculty and staff attend trainings focused on how to foster inclusivity on campus; whether there is a mentor program for immigrant, international, and refugee students; whether marketing materials are in multiple languages; whether the school has software that helps faculty learn to pronounce students’ names correctly; and whether career planning workshops are offered in other languages.

Having students and families speak directly with recent alumni who graduated from their high school can help applicants gain honest responses and a clear understanding of the type of support they will have access to, said Jamie Kim, director of college counseling at St. John’s School in Houston, Texas. According to Kim, “In some cases, our students are more vulnerable with those they know, so they tend to ask more candid questions with regard to financial support or expectations within that community, their transition from a PWI space like ours to the college they’re considering, and the experiences and interactions both inside and outside the classroom.”

Student newspapers can be another valuable source of information, especially the editorial or opinion columns. These often serve as a true testament of the tone and attitude of the student body, and typically the school’s inclusivity will shine through based on what people are writing.

Watching news coverage from the cities and towns surrounding campus can also be extremely beneficial, as is researching student outcomes. The US Department of Education’s College Scorecard allows students to look at multiple aspects of a college’s financial data including student loan debt, starting salaries for alumni from a particular school, graduation rate, and costs.

“Students have to understand that financial aid and upward mobility are also diversity and inclusion issues,” said Danny Tejada, a lead college counselor with We Go to College, LLC in St. Louis, Missouri.

Acknowledging Issues and Embracing Transparency

After guiding students through the research process, what should counselors do when schools aren’t doing well in DEI? Glossing over the truth or sharing only part of the story isn’t an option. Oftentimes counselors are a student’s only source of guidance in the college search process. Therefore, it is essential to be as upfront as possible and to give students the best information with which to make a decision. It is undeniably clear that school counselors have a large, if not the largest, impact on students and their postsecondary careers, so it is imperative to be truthful and have authentic and meaningful conversations surrounding DEI on college campuses.

Underrepresented groups are faced with overt racism and discriminatory behavior more frequently than not, and it is up to universities to ensure that all students feel safe and are supported consistently and appropriately. Although it is unacceptable for hate crimes, discrimination, and implicit bias to be present on a campus, it does happen, and it is the counselor’s responsibility to explain and discuss the realities of these occurrences on certain campuses. Tejada emphasized, “…choosing between possible upward mobility and keeping their dignity. For many students that I have worked with in my past, it really meant the difference between life and death. As a first-generation, low-income student, person of color myself, I knew that feeling all too well.” According to Tejada, it is critical for counselors to be upfront, so students have the chance to be successful in an appropriate environment.

If a particular college is known for racist ideology, or for not being inclusive, a student who values diversity should be warned and pointed in a different direction. Certain colleges embrace DEI and devote ample time and effort into ensuring that all students have the same opportunities, and numerous studies show those efforts influence graduation rates among BIPOC groups.

Some schools have large discrepancies between white students and BIPOC students in terms of graduation rates, while others are equal. Counselors should use these facts and statistics to help guide their students. However, Kim noted that there’s much more to DEI work and finding students a place where they feel supported. “There’s a difference between admitting a diverse class and supporting a diverse class, so it’s important that students understand what it means to be supported. It’s important that as college counselors, we help our students understand what support looks and feels like to them. Sometimes, our students haven’t received support and just navigated through it by sheer will and determination that they may not know what they can actually look and ask for,” she said. It’s up to counselors to guide students to schools that will support them, and to show students what authentic support looks like.

Actions Counselors and Colleges Can Take

Once a student finds a perfect match, or in other words, a college that exceeds their expectations for academics and inclusion, it’s important to recognize how the college conveys its mission to the surrounding area and to future prospective students. There needs to be “buy-in” throughout the entire institution; all faculty members and students need to be working toward the same goals or else the structure will crumble.

When colleges were first created, they were meant for middle- and upper-class white males, therefore, being aware of DEI and increasing DEI on campuses and the surrounding areas is critical. Colleges need to be student-ready instead of students being college-ready.

Richardson said colleges should ensure their DEI mission statements and philosophies are consistent and constant. “Educating students is the best way to do this. It must be embedded in the curriculum that every student is required to take. Counselors and prospective students need to see a diverse administration and faculty who are committed to fostering a community that values every voice and civil discourse. Counselors receive so many emails from colleges, it would be nice to receive messages about their diversity initiatives on an ongoing basis,” she said.

Schools can talk about being diverse and equal, but until they actually make an effort, their rhetoric is meaningless. A college can show it is committed to fostering cultural connections by working with current and prospective students, surrounding high schools, community outreach programs, and various local cultural communities. Communicating with the above groups can give schools insight on what to improve, how to improve, and what is working. Visiting high schools and describing the college experience gets students interested and holds colleges accountable for their actions. When students and colleges have a reciprocal relationship, everyone benefits.

Something else that would benefit those involved in the admission process is for colleges to hold professional development conferences with school counselors. In addition, colleges can extend their DEI values by permanently getting rid of mandatory standardized test scores, a paramount aspect of the college admission process that negatively affects underrepresented groups. During the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous colleges became test-optional, but pushing colleges to become test-blind institutions is ideal. Test prep courses, review books, and tutors all increase standardized test scores, but they also cost money. BIPOC students are more likely to come from low-socioeconomic households, many of which can’t afford these resources. There is much more to a student than a test score. Once abolished, equity becomes more balanced.

Equal access to college information and recruitment is also crucial. Historically, colleges have done a poor job with Black student enrollment, a troubling trend that continues today, said Tejada, the counselor with We Go to College. He recalls that few colleges planned recruitment visits to the diverse South Bronx high school where he worked a couple years ago. True access is impossible to reach when colleges fail to deliberately put themselves in front of Black students and their families, he said.

It isn’t realistic to assume that BIPOC students or their family members will feel comfortable reaching out to a college or putting themselves on a college campus they are unfamiliar with. Colleges need to lead the way by creating inviting situations, such as multicultural nights. They need to send out personal invitations to high school students, develop mentor programs that pair prospective applicants with current students of all ethnicities and races, and create administrative positions strictly focused on DEI.

Tejada said colleges can and should do this in many ways. “Building partnerships with CBOs, public schools, and public school systems are critical to any school’s DEI mission. They have to do the outreach. They have to do things such as create focused plans to visit CBOs and public schools in an area they’ve never been before. They have to invite CBO and public school college counselors to attend counselor events and trips to their school,” he said.

Making assumptions about the students is a poor strategy, continued Tejada. “Colleges need to stop settling on the idea that the Black students who fit their profile don’t exist because that isn’t true. The real issue is that Black students and their counselors don’t know you exist. Information is king. You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. Colleges need to meet students where they are.

Once a campus gains a positive reputation for inclusivity, it must ensure the surrounding area follows suit. Working with the city or town, chamber of commerce, and local officials would help immensely. Students and their families are attracted to safe areas where students can explore, shop, go out to eat, and establish a future career. It is the responsibility of the college to ensure that life on and off campus provides students with a welcoming, diverse, and safe community.

Shanell Leggins, Ed.D., is a college counselor at NIST International School (Thailand).

By Jon Boeckenstedt

Congratulations to the 2020 Muir Award winner, Jon Boeckenstedt, who won for his Admitting Things blog, which is widely respected and seen as a clear, compassionate voice backed up by data. With his finger on the pulse of college admission and enrollment management, his fearless writing insightfully supports our profession and the students we serve. We appreciate him contributing this column.


Perhaps it’s our own fault: We selected this very esoteric profession and we have to put up with the confusion. At least most of us did.

When I started in admission in 1983, it wasn’t an active choice—it was mostly out of necessity. My student loans were coming due and I had to come up with $52.79 every month for the next seven years to repay the $3,500 I had borrowed to get a bachelor’s degree. The economy was tough and I traded one job talking to strangers (selling cable TV door-to-door) for another with a starting salary of $11,000. But at least in this job, the people were interested in talking to me, which makes all the difference for an introvert.

Back then, few people I met or talked to socially seemed to be interested in what I did or even inquired about the facts or the nuances of my job. It was just a job to me and to people who were my friends. They didn’t care about college admission and I didn’t ask about ledgers or legal briefs or journalism.

When admission work—and admission in general—became something else I can’t quite pinpoint. But when our national fascination with the quest for the best came to the forefront, friends and neighbors started asking me a lot of questions, and it was kind of fun to talk about it. What was once just another job became a subject of interest and while I could never fully explain it, I felt it my duty to give it a shot. Looking back, I’m guessing it would take three years of doing the job—the weeks on the road; the file review; the parent, student, and counselor interactions; the same question a thousand times—to have the experience necessary to explain this profession to others.

So, it was interesting and puzzling to me at about that time, to see people who had never done our work start to write about it, opine about it, and make general pronouncements about it.

This has turned out to be considerably less fun than the job I’ve grown to love, because too often, I’ve found, they’re wrong. They might have their facts straight but lack nuance. They might see a few examples and make general pronouncements that don’t hold up under scrutiny. They often make comparisons that seem disparaging or even mean between what we do and what other professions do. They might be victims of their own privileged upbringing, which makes them think their little slice of reality is the only reality.

I’m under no illusions, of course, that a piece in a professional journal will disabuse people of the notions and prejudices they carry with them, but I have a bad habit of, in the words of the late great newspaper columnist Molly Ivins (quoting a politician from Texas), “beating my head against a dead horse.” As someone who almost didn’t go to college at all, I think making a difference in the lives of students is worth it, even if I’ll never know how many–if any–I’ve influenced. And, of course, I think the work we do is special and worth defending. So, here I sit with my keyboard, trying to distill over 35 years into a few thousand words.

To that end, I’ve pulled together a list of the big things people misunderstand or get wrong about what we do for a living, and I’ve added a few thoughts to steer them in the right—excuse me—in my direction. Here goes:

Admission is not a process of skimming the “best” off the top. In the first place, we can’t define “best.” But even if we could, selecting a class of nothing but “the best” would be pretty boring, the process wouldn’t need people to do it, and the outcome wouldn’t be very interesting. With intellectual life at the center of any university, “interesting” is important, but that’s hard to explain. Parents know they don’t always hire the applicant with the most years of experience, or the best GPA, or the one who graduated from the brand-name university, but it’s still hard for them to grasp how admission works, especially at the most selective institutions. In the words of Femi Ogundele at University of California—Berkeley, admission should be looking for “excellence, not perfection.”

Of course we think about money. A colleague once told me, “Without margin, there is no mission.” You can’t run a university on good deeds and goodwill. The electric company wants cash each month; the faculty expect their paychecks will hit their accounts on the last day of the pay period; and test tubes and superconducting nuclear magnetic spectrometers aren’t free. Too many people think “not-for-profit” means “charity.” It doesn’t and it shouldn’t. What makes us different is where we draw the line: Profit is not our motivator.

Graduation rates are inputs, not outputs. Malcolm Gladwell clarified selection effects and treatment effects in his terrific article on college admission in The New Yorker. You don’t become beautiful by going to modeling school; you’re selected because you’re beautiful to start with. That’s a selection effect. You don’t get chosen to become a marine; what happens in basic training makes you one. That’s a treatment effect.

Similarly, if your selection process admits mostly children of wealthy, college-educated parents, who have known since third grade that they’re expected to graduate from college, or if you can provide extraordinary financial assistance to that small group of students who don’t fall into that category, your graduation rates are going to be high. It’s another example of selection effect. Your graduation rate is inversely related to the amount of risk you take in the admission process. If you take few risks in admission, your graduation rates are going to be a lot higher.

We don’t really live in a meritocracy. I once heard University of Wisconsin–Madison professor Harry Brighouse speak about the differences in the US and British education systems and a point he made has stuck with me. In America, he said, we think merit and achievement are the same thing. But no one, he pointed out, gets to achieve anything unless someone invests in them, so students who are the beneficiaries of that investment might have achieved a great deal—but that’s not the same thing as merit. It does explain, however, why people who can invest in their children might equate the two.

It means that wealth looks good on applications when trying to measure “merit” if what you’re really looking for is achievement. And it means, of course, that “merit aid” flows to students who have had the benefit of parental or societal investment, and those students are not always the ones who need it or deserve it. It’s just a way to justify the practice. Instead of being agents of social change, the admission office may be at the heart of the problem of educational inequity, usually, at the behest of the powers in the university.

Standardized tests aren’t academic qualifications. Some parts of the SAT and ACT clearly measure what a student has learned. If that’s all they measured, they’d maybe (big maybe) be useful tools in the admission process. They also—to a greater or lesser degree—measure emotional control, speed processing, and formal preparation and practice, among other things, which may or may not be valuable in college. Choosing the “right” answer from four given might be a skill you’d rather have than not, but good luck applying it in philosophy class.

We have no standardized American high school curriculum, so we’re giving these tests to many students who have never had the opportunity to learn the content, through no fault of their own. The tests don’t measure “aptitude” or “native ability” and never have, despite the monikers once attached to them. And as barriers to the gated communities of academia, they serve merely as minor obstacles to the wealthy, and impenetrable impediments to those without the social, financial, and cultural capital to overcome them. In that sense, they are great tools to use in perpetuating inequality.

Virtually every lawsuit suggesting that admission processes are illegal is based on the premise that “I was more qualified because my test scores were higher.” Pull that premise out from underneath and watch the argument collapse on itself.

There is no such thing as need-blind admission. While it’s true that at many colleges the admission officer can’t see FAFSA data, that would be FAFSA-blind admission.

The fact is that you can see need in almost every line of most applications and you’d have to be willfully ignorant not to recognize it. Put aside for a minute that most colleges don’t have sufficient application volume to even have the luxury of considering ability to pay. Those that do expect successful applicants to have most of the trappings of wealth: the AP classes available at well-resourced schools, great personal statements honed for weeks or months with professionals; high test scores bolstered by months of test prep; letters of recommendation written by teachers who are trained in workshops by the very people reading them; leadership or stellar accomplishments enabled by private lessons or the freedom from after-school jobs; and often college-educated parents who call the institution their alma mater. Only when colleges consider race and ethnicity do lower-income and first-generation students with high need get a chance at a break in the process. That, of course, is the one thing people with all the other advantages like to complain about the most.

We don’t always set the agenda, but we’re expected to carry it out. People who blame the admission office might be right to a point. But the university mission and the strategy to accomplish it, as well as the objectives the dean or director or vice president gets measured against, are set much higher up the food chain. A good admission or financial aid function can and should serve as the nexus between external markets and the internal workings of the academy, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Boards of Trustees are often filled with businesspeople, some of whom don’t understand—and don’t always like—the way colleges run.

Admission isn’t a crap shoot, but it ain’t rocket science either. Very few colleges admit many, if any, unqualified students into their institutions. And while it’s easy to predict how a class will perform, it’s much harder to predict how an individual student will perform. That’s what makes admission so frustrating and so rewarding at the same time. The average GPA of the freshman class after one year is almost pre-ordained; but some superstars will flunk out and some of those students you took a chance on will become stars themselves. The illusion of precision in admission is a fairy tale we tell ourselves.

I couldn’t have imagined when I set out on my first admission trip that I’d still be connected to the profession almost four decades later, and I suppose I couldn’t have believed we’d have to be explaining and defending what we do and how we do it. It’s important, I think, for us to admit when we don’t live up to the expectations we set for ourselves, but it’s also important to defend and provide context for the people who talk about, write about, and legislate for our profession. We’re the ones who live the reality of the work, both the rewards and risks, and at certain times, it’s an 18-hour a day job we all love.

I hope you agree that what we do is worth defending and worth fighting for.

Jon Boeckenstedt is vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University.

By Brian Coleman

I might be the worst college counselor ever. I don’t scream when my students get into the most prestigious schools. As pleased as I am, I don’t even scream when they get into schools that I have attended. I don’t see my letters of recommendation as artistic masterpieces that make or break a student’s admissibility at any given institution. And, I don’t presume any special or secret influence with admission personnel (much to some of my parents’ and families’ chagrin.) I don’t even think that college planning is the most important part of my role. I’m awful.  

But that might just be based on how I understand my role. I am not a college counselor. Or, a guidance counselor (yikes). I am a school counselor. And, I support the holistic development of my students in the aca­demic, social/emotional, and college/career spheres of their lives. I talk about college, military, apprenticeships, gap years, etc. as new beginnings, not endings. I focus on the “why” when it comes to my students’ postsecondary aspirations, not the “where.” I discuss fit, match, financial affordability, and the students’ excitement about their own postsecondary plans. I work with my team of school counselors on lessons and programming to help students build coping skills (like resilience, mindfulness, etc.) for their impending transitions. I want students to have these life skills at their disposal no matter where they land after high school so that they will persist (not just matriculate). And, I tell them that they are unicorns…without a hint of humor or irony.

You see, I think my students are special. And, your students. (And, you, for that matter.) And, I think it is so incredibly important for students to learn as quickly as they can what makes them special –what skills, talents, passions, and perspectives they uniquely possess that can be harnessed to achieve their goals. That awareness is going to take them much farther than the school named on their new college gear or any misconceptions about my influence as a postsecondary support resource. That knowledge is going to help them recognize and overcome a variety of institutional, systemic, and personal obstacles that may otherwise stall or completely halt any forward momentum on their future endeavors.

So, this application season, as students experience a variety of complicated emotions about their postsecondary plans, I encourage us all to push back on superficial praise or disappointment for a decision to attend “such-and-such” university. Instead, let’s express a level of excitement for that institution and the special contributions the student will make upon arrival. Let’s celebrate students’ ability to name “why” that school or postsecondary program is the most viable option and how their decision-making model supports their choice. Let’s celebrate their ability to see themselves as uniquely important and worth investing in. Let’s see them as unicorns.

Brian Coleman is a school counselor and counseling department chair at Jones College Prep (IL) and the 2019 National School Counselor of the Year.

By Jim Paterson

The record of establishing diversity on campus is much like the history of race relations and economic opportunity in America—plenty of policy and rules and rhetoric. Piles of legal briefs. Several steps forward and a few back.

Nonetheless, research shows that efforts to broaden the enrollment reach of higher education not only are moving forward, research and experience increasingly shows it benefits colleges and all their students. In addition, years of US Supreme Court decisions have put these efforts on solid legal ground, advocates believe.

And now, said Art Coleman, an attorney and policy expert on the topic, it’s important for higher education leaders to “roll up their sleeves and do the hard work.” In particular, it’s critical for them to “establish and document important research, experience, and legal foundations every step of the way,” he said.

“They should not worry so much about politics and polls or apparent threats that may be looming, though that may be easier said than done. The only thing that has consequentially changed is the heightened awareness of the issue. Colleges still need to have a clear mission, stay focused on their strategic goals and move forward,” said Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, a consulting firm that has been critical in developing detailed guidance for colleges when it comes to diversity and race-conscious admission policies.

Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College in Connecticut and an advocate for new approaches to enrollment and diversity, said separate from the legal activity, admission offices are at the heart of the issue.

“From the minute they enter the recruitment process, students are evaluating whether or not they will feel comfortable on campus and how it will support them,” he said, as he explained why he believes colleges should reach out to minorities differently, change admission policies, and even add greater diversity to their own staffs. “It all starts with the admission counselor.”

He’s led efforts to make colleges test optional to improve diversity and he oversaw gains in applications from first-generation students at Trinity after the college adopted a policy to waive application fees for all first-generation students.

William Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, as part of a series of articles on diversity published in Inside Higher Education, clearly explains that there are three primary reasons to continue these efforts.

“First, there is the obvious educational benefit. A diverse campus community enriches the learning experience for all students in ways that a more restricted culture simply can’t,” he wrote.

He also noted that it is important as part of “enlightened self interest.” “Our nation is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse and we must educate a larger number of low-income and minority students to lead in the global economy.”

Finally, he said, it is the proper path forward since low-income, underrepresented minority and first-generation students deserve an opportunity to participate in “the most reliable upwardly mobile pathway to a rewarding career and a high quality of life.”

Pérez and other experts seem confident that not only will inclusion of students of color and minority cultures, LGBTQI students, and neurodiverse (an affirmative term that encourages seeing learners as diverse rather than disabled) students continue to be a common, accepted goal. It’s also a goal that will increasingly be realized—and pay off.

The Steps Back and Forth

In four decades of trying to broaden the makeup of college campuses, that effort has moved the needle, data shows, though critics also often say it hasn’t brought change fast enough.

All but 10 states have set goals to attain diversity and improved rates of minority enrollment are common. In Indiana, for instance, the state is on track to significantly decrease the racial equity achievement gap and hopes to meet a goal of closing it by 2025. Not all states have such a record, but generally are making progress.

Meanwhile, LGBTIA+ students have gained new rights and an increased voice on most campuses, and some colleges actually view that community as a “growth market,” according to Time magazine.

Published last year, Disability as Diversity in Higher Education: Policies and Practices to Enhance Student Success, specifically highlights how disabilities are more often considered in the discussion about diversity, and one expert reviewer from Disability Studies Quarterly noted that despite the many challenges, he was happy to see: “stories of more students with disabilities attending college than ever, disability studies programs around the country flourishing, advances in technology, online learning, greater implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a shift in cultural discourse and a movement to cast disability as human diversity….”

However, enrollment numbers for students of color still significantly lag behind the rates for whites.

A New York Times article found that black and Hispanic young people, as they become a bigger part of the population, were still underrepresented in higher education compared to similarly aged white students. Through a series of graphs, it showed both Asian American and white students were significantly overrepresented and that things hadn’t changed much in 35 years of concerted work.

And some critics charge that less visible bias against LGBTI students and those with disabilities and others is an even bigger concern, and inequitable educational resources fuel the problem.

“We have a long way to go, but we are making progress,” said Juan Garcia, a program director with the testing firm ACT and expert on diversity, who said the firm’s data shows it has the most diverse group of test-takers last year than it has ever had. “But this is a systemic problem and we have to start working on it at an even younger age.”

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at NACAC, agreed.

“There’s such a distinct disadvantage to begin with for some students,” he told the Times last year. “A cascading set of obstacles all seem to contribute to a diminished representation of minority students in highly selective colleges.”

Today, he believes that despite those limitations the policies that improve equity, access, and success in education—including those supported by NACAC—are “essential to an inclusive, not exclusive, view of educational opportunity, particularly as a means to individual, societal, and economic improvement.”

“At present, however,” he said, “we’re fighting against policies that fundamentally maintain privilege and eschew equity, so the march toward a more diverse, equitable system might have been lengthened, but will carry on.”


Four Keys

In its document, Building an Evidence Base: Important Foundations for Institutions of Higher Education Advancing Education Goals Associated with Student Diversity, the College Board and EducationCounsel through the Access and Diversity Collaborative established four key questions related to enrollment. Authors of the report said they are important as a matter of policy and as a matter of law.

  • Does the institution have a comprehensive inventory of all policies and programs intended to recruit, admit, and enroll a diverse student population? Is there a process owner and plan to update this information over time? How does this policy and program inventory align with broader institutional goals, strategies, and initiatives?
  • How do admission and outreach reflect the institution’s mission and educational goals? How do they align with goals, strategies, and programmatic investments for students on campus?
  • Is race or ethnicity included in these practices? If so, in what way? If the race or ethnicity of applicants is considered when admitting students or offering tangible benefits such as financial aid, why is the consideration necessary and what does it yield that would not be attained without the consideration of race? In other words, adequate? Can the institution show that the use of race has a demonstrable, consequential impact on its progress toward achieving the institution‘s diversity goals?
  • Has the institution seriously considered strategies that may advance diversity goals? With what results?

Ashley Pallie, associate dean of admissions at Pomona College (CA), added that the admission office also needs to routinely check its assumptions about student groups:

In our efforts to achieve diversity on campus, do we fail to broadly value diversity? Absolutely. It is a human process, and our job as admission professionals is to constantly examine the ways in which our processes are hampering student access and success.

Here are some assumptions that inhibit outreach. We ask:

  • Where does this black student show they’re black? Are they a part of a Black Student Union?
  • Does this Latinx student speak Spanish at home? Are they low-income enough?
  • Does this Native student have an enrollment number and extracurricular activities that clearly show us how they will bring their ethnicity to our community?

What are we really asking? We want evidence that the student will perform their race/ethnicity on campus.

Even if we don’t ask these questions outright, just as dangerously, we gravitate toward a specific type of student within a group.

For example, we may not ask if the Latinx student speaks Spanish, but instead look for those who are low-income, from a single parent household, who recently immigrated, or may not be documented.

We start to prioritize struggle instead of seeing the breadth and depth of the Latinx experience. There is no single factor that determines diversity—this way of thinking is counter to our mission. A middle income, suburban student is not less Latinx because of her socioeconomic status.


The Legal Battles

In the 1960s as tension about race and equity became prominent, colleges began to try to recruit more broadly and the term “affirmative action” was first used. Then, in 1978, in a famous US Supreme Court decision in the Bakke case, a challenge to such policies was struck down and the benefits of diversity were recognized as a permissible foundation. Since that, federal courts have consistently upheld the permissibility of considering race in admission—as recently as 2016 in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, commonly referred to as Fisher II.

Harvard is at the apex of the issue again because of a recent suit brought by a group of Asian American students claiming the college rejected them in favor of lower performing students of different minority groups. The Trump Administration’s Justice Department has offered its support for the effort by the students, which is funded in part an organization that has long sought to eliminate affirmative action in admission. Meanwhile, some Asian American students have organized in opposition to the suit. (NACAC has joined the American Council on Education and some 35 other higher education organizations and universities that have filed a brief supporting Harvard in its position.)

The case may end up in the US Supreme Court and diversity advocates worry that a less favorable body might rule differently than those in the past.

While there is much college and admission counselors can do to be fair and develop college campuses that reflect the makeup of the country (see sidebar) the current administration’s policies have muddied the water. In addition to its position on the Harvard case, it has announced it is rescinding Obama-era “Dear Colleague” letters on affirmative action. Coleman, who served as deputy assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education in the 1990s, notes that such action doesn’t change the fundamentals or alter what the US Supreme Court has said over decades.

The College Board’s Access and Diversity Collaborative (NACAC serves as a member) offers an extensive set of resources for college administrators and admission officials, including a toolkit and a recently published evidence guide that “provides an actionable roadmap—framing key questions, suggesting key kinds of evidence, and pointing to illustrative sources—that can guide institutional deliberation and action for advancing education goals associated with student diversity.”

In that context, Coleman, author of the guide and other collaborative resources, notes that a college’s mission is critical.

“All facets associated with enrollment for institutions of higher education—outreach, recruitment, admissions, financial aid, and scholarships—can serve important roles in achieving diversity goals,” the evidence guide notes. It carefully considers four areas of concern for enrollment officials: mission and goals, governance, periodic review, and evaluation. The guide explores enrollment policy and practice, and measuring success.

It notes that a mission with specific goals is key. “Particularly noteworthy in the context of legal challenges to race-conscious admissions policies is the way in which court analysis has been positively shaped by statements of institutional mission,” it says. “In recent decades, nearly all challenged race- and ethnicity-conscious policies have been grounded upon core mission-related outcome-focused diversity goals established by institutions of higher education.”

How to Increase Diversity

Here are some tips from experts about three areas where initiatives can help colleges that want to broaden diversity—whether it relates to race, gender, economic status, disabilities, or many other relevant diversity criteria.

1) Reach deeper and further
Donnell Wiggins, assistant vice president, new markets for admissions at the University of Dayton (OH), is a firm believer in colleges needing to find undiscovered students in creative ways, including at nearby locations.

“We had this idea we had to go outside our backyard to broaden our reach,” he said. “We thought we’d find students who would add diversity in Chicago or New York. But sometimes we had to look closer to home.”

He said the university has used partnerships with high schools, special summer programs and scholarships, and more thorough searches and recruitment efforts—some with alums—and even in familiar districts to find students who they previously might have missed. The office also changed its marketing to attract students who might not have thought the school was the right fit.

They’ve also worked extensively with organizations committed to enrolling minority students in college. The faith-based university also collaborated with church organizations, bringing in buses of students affiliated with certain congregations.

With all that, Dayton has exceeded its goal for racial/ethnic diversity, moving from 8.5 percent in 2016 to 16.4 percent last year—and expects the level to rise again with the new class.

Ashley Pallie, associate dean of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, said her office is very intentional about reaching students who might not expect to attend the private school.

“If we want a diverse student body, that requires a diverse student pool. Therefore, students who are not naturally in our applicant pool deserve our attention. So that’s where we invest our time and energy,” she said, noting that well over half their office’s time and resources are devoted to underserved populations.

Shunverie Barrientez, assistant director of diversity recruitment at Dedman Law School at Southern Methodist University (TX), who also presents on the topic of diversity, implements several strategies to broaden the admission office’s reach, including having a minority recruiter, minority symposiums, and special minority mentors.

She recommends schools have plenty of information online about diversity and guidance for minority students. She also suggests a high school ambassador program, adopting a high school and summer bridge and transition programs specifically with minority and first-generation students in mind, and personal calls to minority students who may be qualified but seem uncertain or who seem to have difficult hurdles.

Garcia said admission officials should also consider working with middle school students to get them excited about college and encourage them to be successful in their high school years. “We need to begin this process even earlier,” he said.

“Think outside of the traditional recruitment funnel,” said Pérez. “In all my years of doing this work, I’ve learned that talent is everywhere; opportunity is not.”

2) Look around the room and in the mirror
If a college’s admission office is not diverse, it is perhaps less likely to enroll a diverse student body, but also less likely to have more subtle qualities that result in less implicit bias and, as much as possible, view applicants without assumptions. (NACAC has addressed this issue as a “national challenge” according to Hawkins, based on research suggesting that admission offices are less diverse than college student bodies and the population as a whole.)

Pérez said he agrees with such research that suggests admission offices often “replicate themselves.”

“If we are going to diversify our campuses, the people who evaluate and recruit must also be diverse,” Pérez said, recalling a student who told him that his presence at the student’s South Bronx high school encouraged him to consider college. “It all starts with the admission counselor.”

Admission offices should “reflect the diverse student body you seek to attract,” Pallie said, but also include people who want to educate themselves about the topic.

“Invest in a team of professionals in your office who want to become experts on diversity, access, and inclusion research. There is so much rich data, about national trends but also institutional data and research,” she said.

Beyond that, implicit bias—the tendency to make assumptions we may not even see in ourselves—is often a factor and should be checked.

The Nature of Implicit Bias report points out that it is often complex. “The common view of prejudice is incomplete, even dangerously so,” the authors concluded. “Prejudice and stereotyping in social judgment and behavior does not require personal animus, hostility, or even awareness. In fact, prejudice is often… unwitting, unintentional, and uncontrollable—even among the most well-intentioned people.”

They found an overemphasis on conspicuous explicit bias also may cause us to ignore subtler assumptions.

Barrientez recommended admission offices have special mandatory training in such bias, that they work with representatives from minority groups to examine their processes, and meet regularly as a staff to openly exchange ideas and concerns about diversity.

A new study notes that students who indicate that racial equity is an important issue to them are 26 percent less likely to get a response to queries from predominantly white colleges.

3) Investigate the hoops
Many experts believe that diversity will increase if schools continue to de-emphasize test scores and grades in meaningful ways, simplify the application process, and help students manage admission paperwork.

Barrientez organizes special parent resource workshops concerning financial aid, admission, college readiness, and test preparation. She helps students follow up with fee waivers and believes admission offices must consider how these students may need more and different supports.

The Common Application and the Coalition for College both say they have worked to simplify the process and make it easier for non-traditional students to apply.

“A student also is more than a test score,” said Garcia, who noted such data often cause admission officials to overlook candidates from schools and families with fewer resources and less familiarity with the admission process.

He and other experts say looking carefully at prospects for qualities, such as determination and collaborative skills or a commitment to a field—or even signs that they succeeded relatively well despite severe adversity—opens enrollment staffs to including a wider range of students.

“I’d be interested in how savvy a student is. How have they navigated difficult situations? That might say a lot about their potential success and it might broaden who an admission office is considering,” Garcia said.

“All of the NACAC studies show that testing is not the best predictor of success in college—so why use it as a barrier to success?” asked Pérez.

He noted that at Trinity he dropped application fees for all low-income students, made admission test-optional, and created four-year financial aid awards for the lowest income students.

“We have enrolled the highest number of first-generation and low-income students in the college’s history because we were intentional, strategic, created an eco-system of diversity in our office, on campus and beyond—and we realized that if we were going to succeed, we were going to have to start changing the status quo. We had to reduce barriers.”

Jim Paterson is a writer and former school counselor living in Lewes, Delaware.