Enrollment Blog

Low-income students, high-impact recruitment

by Pam Kiecker Royall, Ph.D.

There has been a lot in the media recently about troubling enrollment trends for low-income students. But there’s good news here as well—we’re learning more every day about how to recruit them. What follows is a review of our latest findings on this important enrollment topic.

Chances are you have a working assumption about how serving low-income students fits into your school’s mission, and it's probably related to it being “the right thing to do.” This may actually be more true than you realize.

Low-income students are a challenging new majority

Low-income students now constitute a majority in the nation’s public schools. This means that, whatever your intentions, you’re increasingly going to be recruiting students from this segment.

And you’ll be starting from a challenging baseline. The number of low-income high school graduates enrolling at colleges and universities nationwide has dropped significantly in recent years, even as the size of this group has grown.

Make a conscious effort to engage them

Fortunately, there’s something you can do about it.

Research shows that schools vary in terms of how effective they are at enrolling students among low-income populations, and there are clear reasons for the gap in performance.

What I find even more encouraging is that improving your numbers in terms of low-income student recruitment doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking. Making relatively small changes in your recruitment process can have a big impact. This was one major finding from a recent survey we conducted. The 3,000+ high school students responding provided important insights on a wide range of factors influencing their college decisions. Below are some key findings, focusing on high-ability low-income (or “HALI”) students

4 characteristics of successful outreach to low-income students

1. Offer a custom application
If you’re a Common Application exclusive school, chances are you’re not attracting as many HALI students as you otherwise might. Our survey showed that significantly fewer HALI students are using the Common App compared with middle- and high-income students. And, importantly, this group is more likely to engage with a school-specific paper application than students from higher-income families.

While the survey didn’t identify reasons for this preference, the general picture of the HALI group that emerged from our study suggests an answer. They seem to be especially appreciative of communications that meaningfully advance their understanding both of the schools they’re applying to and of the application process itself—something that’s accomplished more readily through a custom application.

HALI students also revealed they were more likely than those from other income groups to prefer applications with pre-filled personal data.

2. Boost your outreach to high school education professionals
Other research we’ve done has shown, time and time again, that engaging parents has a huge positive impact on enrollment.

But this is actually less true for HALI students. Students’ responses show that this group depends far less on parental guidance than do other income segments when it comes to college decisions.

Instead, they are likely to act on advice from teachers and other education professionals. This means that whatever outreach you’re doing to high school guidance counselors, for example, will be especially important when focusing on HALI students.

3. Engage early, with information to address financial questions and concerns
HALI students want information about college costs and financing early in their high school careers, with 42% indicating they would like it in freshman year and 52% in sophomore year. Those numbers are significantly higher than what was reported by middle- and high- income students (who also want this information, but not until later).

One implication of this finding is that you will serve students better by segmenting your financially themed communications, making earlier contact with lower-income students.

4. Customize the campus visit
Not surprisingly, the HALI students in our survey identified travel stipends as an important driver of their likelihood to visit campuses.

But they’re also looking for a different kind of campus visit. In addition to placing greater importance on meeting with financial aid personnel, HALI students expressed more interest in attending classes and cultural events than did students from other income groups.

Talk to them

I could cite more examples like the ones above (and I encourage you to learn more by downloading the full summary of our survey results). But I don’t want to lose sight of an important insight here.

HALI students are open to and benefit disproportionately from your guidance. First-generation students—those who lack the sort of fundamental knowledge on how to manage college choice that stems from parents’ personal experiences—need more assistance with the entire process. This includes guidance regarding applications and financing, knowledge that wealthier students acquire “by osmosis.”

Approached correctly—through the right channels, and with content that meaningfully advances their understanding—you’ll find an exceptionally receptive audience in the HALI group. Which, in turn, can give your recruitment efforts a significant boost.

I’d be hard pressed to think of a better case of doing well by doing good.

Want to learn more about recruiting high-ability low-income students?

For the complete set of insights, download our white paper. In it you'll also find detailed data on factors influencing high-ability low-income students' college choice, including comparisons with their peers from higher-income groups. Access the white paper.

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