Over the past several months, high school seniors and family members in communities across the country have made their way through a long-complex admissions process, completing financial aid forms, collecting letters of recommendation, writing personal statements, and ultimately submitting applications to a long list of institutions.
While the challenges associated with this process may seem stubbornly familiar, they unfolded amid the context of a once-in-a-century pandemic that completely upended the student experience and has curtailed access to the resources and guidance that are essential to meeting a flurry of milestones and deadlines. This has significant implications for young people from lower-income backgrounds and communities of color, who often lack—and require most—dedicated support to navigate this maze; from high school counselors to representatives from colleges and universities who offer in-person information sessions and campus visits.
Building a Bridge to Postsecondary Access
Admissions staff at higher education institutions nationwide recognized the need to confront this disparity with urgency, not only as a moral imperative, but also an essential enrollment management strategy amid precipitous declines in the entering Fall 2020 cohort.
That is why Amherst College, Bowdoin College, Carleton College, Pomona College, Swarthmore College, and Williams College formed the Six Colleges Initiative, a collective that created a streamlined, single point of admissions information for more students than they could each reach individually. Over the past several months, key staff across the six institutions have headlined a set of webinars for students and families centered on essential topics like the academic experience, faculty relationships, and community-building. Each of these forums have provided unique opportunities to reach thousands of students across the country in real time, the recordings of which are then publicly available and can be distributed to even more young people across our institutions’ shared networks.
Transforming Admissions for a Post-Pandemic World
Beyond simply reaching students, each of these forums have also presented invaluable opportunities to learn of their concerns about the postsecondary experience—and help inform policies and practices that address those challenges head-on. For example, the Six Colleges webinars offered greater transparency on admissions criteria and alleviated students’ concerns about the colleges’ ability to address increased financial need during the recession. As a part of addressing these student concerns, the Six Colleges also identified the need to reach high school counselors and staff at community-based organizations (CBOs) nationwide through webinars, recognizing the trusted role they have in students’ lives and their ability to convey essential information on those topics.
As institutions of higher education re-positioned activities like these for a virtual landscape and at flexible times throughout the day and night, an unexpected development emerged: more robust engagement with parents and families, who can serve as invaluable champions in navigating the admissions process. They can help reinforce admissions deadlines, set aside time to complete application forms, and underscore the value of higher education. In the process, unique, meaningful connections emerge with families in ways that did not exist before. And through budding partnerships built on trust and common understanding, admissions staff can allay concerns parents and families typically have about affording the cost of their institutions and the ways in which their children will feel supported and nurtured.
Fortunately, this impetus toward collective action is also emerging in other areas of admissions practice. Coalitions of public colleges and universities throughout the Northeast and institutions across the Hudson River Valley, for example, have structured tailored information sessions for regional counselors and students to expand and diversify their recruitment pipelines. Nearly 200 admissions leaders signed onto a collective statement this past summer, offering an unmatched level of transparency around the criteria they will prioritize in their review of applications. And institutions learned from one another as they reimagined the duration and nature of fly-in and other traditional on-campus initiatives for virtual contexts, extending such programs to last over the course of a week and at all times throughout the day. As a result, students had additional flexibility to meaningfully engage with faculty, learn from peers about the campus experience, and connect with admissions, financial aid, and support staff.
Making the Case for Collective Impact
Even in the face of significant change, institutions have heeded the call to introduce innovative, equitable practices that promise to endure well after the pandemic. Collectives like these help to reinforce a central principle that can have similar staying power: colleges with seemingly competing interests can join together to showcase that a high-quality liberal arts education is not only a transformative experience that can lead to professional success but is affordable to all.
Even just the smaller-scale institutions that make up the Six Colleges have used the power of a shared platform to amplify the accessibility of the liberal arts experience for thousands of students and families, highlighting financial aid opportunities, offering responses to frequently asked questions about the transition to college, and showcasing academic resources. They have drawn from the robust accomplishments of their alumni networks, elevating success stories of former students from across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds that illustrate to prospective students that they too can thrive at selective institutions. And these institutions have leveraged their collective capital to underscore the importance of a focus on equity and opportunity—and the invaluable contributions that diverse students can make in, and beyond, higher education.
Collective initiatives that transcend long-established geographic and institutional divides are well-positioned to confront other enduring challenges in the field, much like the American Talent Initiative’s nationwide efforts to increase socioeconomic diversity at its high-graduation-rate member institutions. As admissions practice continues to evolve in the wake of the pandemic, the hope is that the Six Colleges can offer a blueprint for how such initiatives, and the innovative ideas that emerge from them, can expand access for students from lower-income backgrounds as well as communities of color. Efforts like these can help ensure the success of more talented students at high-graduation rate institutions; even amid the uncertainty we face today.