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Dr. Brian C. Mitchell Headshot

Finding Students Where They Live

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I had lunch in Boston last week with Rob Hutter and Michael Staton, partners at Learn Capital, based near San Francisco. Both are extremely creative, committed and entrepreneurial thinkers about the intersection of ed tech and higher education. The conversation ranged widely as time flew by. What struck me most during it, however, was a theme that has repeated itself in a number of conversations I've participated in over the past few months.

Increasingly, higher education leadership and ed tech entrepreneurs are coming to similar conclusions about how we admit students. On some levels, the new study by Caroline M. Hoxby and Christopher Avery released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in December 2012 is the foundation for much of the subsequent discussion. Hoxby and Avery used data available through the College Board and ACT to focus on low-income, high achieving college seniors. Two conclusions stand out:

The first is that the majority of low-income, highly qualified students do not apply to the most selective schools that might admit them. Indeed, many of them avoid application to "reach" schools. Among those who do apply, there is a wide similarity in origin, narrowing to a handful of high schools, typically from the 15 largest metropolitan areas. Ominously, colleges are focusing on these few schools effectively narrowing their search for access among underrepresented students.

Any of us who have been involved in thinking through admissions practices understand the drill. Colleges have limited resources. Their strategic plans emphasize outreach and a commitment to access.

The easiest way to match resources to vision is to seek students from underrepresented minorities who are most likely to succeed. Prior counseling and mentorship are instrumental to student success. Staffing resources are devoted to the schools and those programs -- admirable, intentional and widely vetted -- that will most efficiently address commitments to access.

There is nothing wrong with these programs; in fact, they are needed and proven additions to a broad-based commitment to access.

The problem has at least two parts. The first is that students who might succeed under the best circumstances in cities like Dayton, Bakersfield, Utica, and Worcester will not have the benefit of attendance at "predictor," large city magnet schools. This also applies to underrepresented students throughout rural America.

The second is that admissions leadership, like higher education leadership generally, is slow to recognize how students learn. Even worse they fail to understand how students learn -- or could learn -- about them.

Higher education leadership earnestly and in good faith worries about key indicators like net tuition revenue, demographic change, and the broadening of the student body. There are often deep and sometimes heated internal arguments about how best to increase underrepresented minorities in an admissions class.

These debates are both pragmatic and philosophical. The resolution is often to focus on the financial aid model and use it to encourage diversity to complete the new admissions class.

When colleges and universities fall back on legacies and athletes as their principal tools to meet strategic admissions goals, they typically fail to move the dial.

If we can agree that the intersection of ed tech and higher education is producing enormous change in a fluid environment, we must also reasonably concur that technology will have an impact not only on the way that professors educate but also on the way that administrators conduct their business. Perhaps no area is likely to change more than admissions.

There are two issues.

The first is that admissions officials must find new building blocks to sustain their commitment to diversity and access by also strengthening the financial health and sustainability of an institution. If colleges and universities are to live their strategic plan, they must look for new building blocks like two-year community college graduate transfers and adopt progressive, collective policies toward admitting well-prepared students globally. There are only so many students out there. We need some fresh thinking, better tactics and a new playbook now. America has abundant developing intellectual capital but fails miserably at nurturing it.

The second issue is that admissions professionals will need to ramp up their game. It may be that admission "open houses" and counselor visits to campus will become only part of an admissions recruiting strategy. The future will likely be to find students where they live.

Students learn differently from previous generations. In the same way that professors will need to account for these changing learning styles in their pedagogy, admissions counselors must also recognize the importance of networking through social media.

In the future, it is likely that the best admissions recruitment strategies will begin with effective use of social media and social media advertising. It may be that the four-color glossy brochure with the smiling, undifferentiated but perfectly balanced group of students shown on the cover simply will not survive as an effective lead recruiting tactic as students acquire information differently.

The end result may not be bad. In fact, a progressive admissions recruiting policy using social media may be the best way for America to move beyond only drawing the interest of underrepresented minorities from largest metropolitan areas, and rather will help provide clear options on access for a far broader range of students. It's a tactical change but a moment of genuine opportunity.