Commentary: COVID Upended the Traditional College Search. But Higher Ed Can Partner With Community Groups to Open Doors for Low-Income Students of Color

At this time of year, college admissions offices are typically gearing up for a flurry of high school visits, college fairs and on-campus events across the country to identify and recruit the next class of talented students.

As with much else, though, the pandemic has upended this practice, prompting institutions of higher education to repurpose tours for virtual platforms, retrofit admissions events for Zoom and connect with students by text, phone and video.

But as colleges reimagine admissions for a largely virtual context, they must not leave behind students who lack access to high-quality broadband. One in five young people in America today faces this challenge, a disproportionate number of whom are from lower-income backgrounds and communities of color. These are the students most likely to lack the information and resources needed to navigate the complex application process, potentially fueling even wider gaps in postsecondary access.

But even without the traditional means of outreach, colleges can rely on an invaluable, yet unheralded asset to engage talented students nationwide: college access and success community-based organizations (CBOs), a collective of nonprofits devoted to widespread postsecondary access and attainment. With a reliance on early, persistent and personalized advising, a model that initiatives like CollegePoint have implemented with College Advising Corps, College Possible, Matriculate and ScholarMatch, CBOs have driven significant gains in academic engagement and postsecondary enrollment. In fact, a 2018 nationwide survey from the National College Attainment Network found that students affiliated with college access CBOs graduate from postsecondary institutions at higher rates than peers from lower-income families who did not engage with these organizations.

The promise of these partnerships is evident at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which teams up with CBOs such as SEO Scholars and EMERGE- Houston Independent School District to more effectively engage talented students from rural, suburban and urban communities. And it is reflected in the hundreds of students, affiliated with a national network of over two dozen CBOs, that the University of Richmond has propelled to postsecondary success over two decades.

Colleges and universities of all types have an opportunity to deepen their partnerships with comparable organizations to realize this impact, expanding their collaboration beyond the occasional community visit, admissions workshop or on-campus event.

But to do so effectively, they must identify demographic, geographic and academic criteria that can be used to surface the CBO partners that best advance their admissions and enrollment goals, relying on field-wide resources like the American Talent Initiative and College Greenlight’s partnership development framework. Once these collaborations are in place, ongoing communication is essential to meet the evolving needs of students in an ever-changing landscape. These are achieved through regular check-ins to surface supports that address students’ needs, or through more formal strategy meetings to determine what about the partnership is working and what adjustments may be needed to realize shared success outcomes.

Together, colleges and CBOs can reach larger numbers of talented students who need support and guidance to pursue postsecondary education, beginning with targeted outreach to the schools that they attend. As a part of this engagement, they can empower district leaders to equip high school and middle school counselors with information about relevant CBOs, drawn from databases like those provided by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling. In many cases, middle and high school counselors are best positioned to connect the students they serve to these programs. Additionally, colleges can make the most of schools’ existing family engagement efforts, using emails, mailers and virtual connections to showcase CBOs and alumni that illustrate their impact, as well as prompt families to explore how those programs can support their children’s postsecondary aspirations.

But to be able to assure the success of partnerships that can have an impact as early as a child’s middle school years, college presidents and chancellors must make public commitments to — and sustained investments in — deeper collaborations with CBOs that can advance a college’s core values of diversity and inclusion.

At Michigan, President Mark Schlissel spearheaded an equity-focused five-year strategic plan, backing it up with an $85 million investment. And at Richmond, President Ronald Crutcher supported need-blind admissions and met the full demonstrated financial need of all undergraduates, including through loan-free aid packages for students served by partner CBOs. Despite financial constraints, university leaders can reinforce the value of CBOs even by simply sharing information about, and highlighting the success of, these partnerships in public addresses and strategic documents.

University presidents can demonstrate this commitment even through what may seem like minor interactions. For example, when Crutcher noticed a drawing of a University of Richmond pennant while visiting the Chicago Scholars office, he texted a photo of the pennant to the artist, a program alumnus who had enrolled at Richmond. Now, that artist is benefiting from a life-changing mentorship with the president. These are the kinds of transformative anecdotes that district leaders can embed in their outreach to families.

At any level, presidential commitments provide admissions teams with the latitude to collaborate with on-campus staff, high school counselors and school district leaders to support the students whom CBOs serve, largely those from lower-income backgrounds and communities of color who are need dedicated advising and guidance to apply to, and access, college. The Spider Firsts initiative, for example, has been instrumental in surfacing the holistic supports that first-generation students need and providing connections to faculty and staff, including its president, who are from similar backgrounds.

Even as colleges navigate an unprecedented admissions cycle, they can partner with CBOs and enlist school and community leaders in a collective effort to ensure that the full range of extraordinary students do not slip through the cracks.

Stephanie Dupaul is vice president for enrollment management at the University of Richmond. Stephanie Riegle is executive director for enrollment operations and strategic initiatives at the University of Michigan. Both schools are members of the American Talent Initiative, a national coalition of 131 top colleges across the country devoted to increasing socioeconomic diversity on their campuses.

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