Attracting underrepresented students just the first challenge

EAB survey data offers insights for success among first-gen, minority, and low-income students

Slightly more than half of first-generation, black, Latino, and low-income high school upperclassmen report personal letters from colleges are helpful as they gather information about their post-secondary options.

Just 38% of Asian students and 27% of students from higher income families said the same.

As colleges and universities pay more attention to attracting under-represented students, parsing out the differences between prospective applicants based on their first-generation status, ethnicity, and family income is important.

The latest data comes from an online survey of 8,515 college-bound high school juniors and seniors by Royall & Company, a division of EAB focused on data-driven services for higher education enrollment management, financial aid optimization, and alumni fundraising.

Their survey also found that first-generation, black, Latino, and low-income students are between 13 and 18 percentage points more likely to be open to receiving text messages from schools than their peers.

Increasing applications from first-generation students and students of color is difficult for some of the most selective schools that have not had long histories serving these populations. Increasing yield, is another matter. And closing outcomes gaps is yet another challenge.

Virgil Jones is CEO of Bottom Line, a college access and success-focused support program for first-generation college students in Massachusetts, New York City, and Chicago. Bottom Line offers high school seniors help as they decide what schools to apply to and attend, providing transition support as these students adjust to the realities of campus life. Then, they continue their work as students choose classes and proceed through their academic programs, graduating four to six years later.

Since its inception in 1997, the organization has had a 78% graduation rate, far surpassing the national averages for students of similar backgrounds.

Jones says achieving high outcomes with first-generation students comes down to the will to do it. Small liberal arts colleges often have high success rates, and part of it is the potential to have high-touch advising. If students don’t go to class for a week, Jones says, someone will be knocking on their door. Whatever the reason, not all schools have made this type of contact a priority, failing to put the resources behind new initiatives and hire people to serve higher-need students.

“You know the backgrounds of individuals when they come to class,” Jones said. “It’s not rocket science that it’s a difficult transition for first-generation students when they get to campus. … I think some campuses, they don’t care enough.”

But Jones expects more colleges will be forced to care as students and families have more opportunities to pay attention to outcomes, whether it is because of new report cards or other initiatives.

These students are courted in the recruitment process, they meet admissions requirements to earn their spot on campus. From there, Jones sees it as a college’s imperative to invest in the students they accept.

“It’s unfair to the students if you’re not going to invest in them,” Jones said. “Not only for a year but the four to six years it takes for them to graduate. It’s critically important that students have the opportunity to get into college and also have the support and resources to graduate college.”

In a time of tight budgets at schools across the country, many colleges have seen success by leveraging technology to inform support services, using analytics to develop early warning systems, and forging ahead with intrusive advising services with as much money as they can allocate. Early success then provides the talking points for donor pitches and other funding arguments.

The thought leadership on strategies is out there, Jones says, it’s simply time to take action.

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Filed Under: Higher Ed
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