Category Archives: first-generation college students

Enrollment Management: Integrated from Beginning to End

waiting graduates in cap and gowns - African American student facing camera

Source: Flickr/ via U.S. Department of Education (CC BY 2.0)

Enrollment managers hold an important and key role to helping colleges and universities enhance the student experience. Every institution has them. They are key players not only in helping the institution meet enrollment goals, but graduation goals as well. These professionals share values and accountabilities with faculty and student affairs, as well as every functional area of the college or university. They are, therefore, favorably positioned to help faculty, staff, and administrators provide the return on investment that today’s students expect.

Several years ago, I was to be the commencement speaker at a college. It was a bright sunny day, and there were rows and rows of people as far as I could see. The stage was full of robed dignitaries and student speakers. I was one of the two African Americans on stage – both getting honorary degrees. In addition to my being unnerved by my own audacity in accepting the role of commencement speaker, the other African American who was receiving an honorary degree was none other than the excellent speaker and brilliant astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson! To say that I was anxious is an understatement.

Once the preliminary remarks and introductions were over, students’ names began to be called. As they walked across the stage, I forgot about my own stage fright and began to enjoy the celebration. As each student’s name was called and the happy student walked across the stage to receive the diploma and shake hands with administrators, some were beaming with grins and others were crying tears of joy.  I was so happy for them that my face began to hurt from smiling so broadly for so long.

I noticed that the line that had been going rather swiftly up to the point of shaking hands with the administrators was backed up where students were exiting the stage on my far right. I peered around to see what was happening and saw that, as the students were exiting the stage, an admissions professional was standing where the students descended, smiling, shaking hands, fist bumping, high fiving, and being enthusiastically hugged by many of the graduates. I smiled and thought to myself how right and fitting that the first person students encountered during the critical time of choosing this college was there to congratulate them as they graduated.

The idea of being there at the beginning and at the end makes me recall a conversation I had with a student at this same college who had been told that he should take this college off his list of possibilities for all the usual reasons first-generation students might not attend highly selective colleges. The student, however, left the college on his list and his high school counselor scheduled an appointment at the high school with someone from the Office of Admissions. He was late for the appointment and the admissions director asked him why. Usually reticent to talk about himself, especially with strangers, this simple inquiry from the admissions director opened the door for him to share more about himself than he ever would have expected. He thought his chances were not great for being accepted and, if he were accepted, he knew he could not afford to attend. He couldn’t even afford a trip for a campus visit. To make a long story short, he was accepted, received a scholarship, and received funds to visit the campus. Seeing the campus was love at first sight for this student. But something was bothering him.

He said he hated systems and didn’t want to be just another number in an affirmative action system where he wasn’t really seen for who he was. He said that this feeling was a like a cloud overshadowing all the good that was coming his way.

He told me that, early during his first semester, he had an occasion to see the admissions director who interviewed him at his high school. She remembered him and everything they had talked about. He was amazed that she remembered him, and this made him feel good. Shortly after the conversation with this admissions director, he had an encounter with another director from the admissions office. When the director learned the student’s name, he said with a friendly smile, “Oh, yes, I remember reading your essay.” The student said that he thought, “Wow! Maybe I’m not just a number in a system after all.” The student said that these same admissions directors reached out to him to see how he was doing throughout the semester. He said that their genuine attention was a strong motivator for him to do well because his family was in another country and had no idea what life was like for him as a college student in the United States. I can imagine the long hug at the end of the line during commencement when this student crosses the stage and sees his admissions directors.

So, if you find yourself confounded by how different your incoming class is than previous classes of students, don’t wait for the next popular publication: talk with your colleagues in enrollment management. They can give you information about students who are attending your college or university rather than a generic broad-brush description of a new generation of students.

Enrollment managers, more than anyone else on campus, know why students choose to come to a given college or university. It would serve institutions well, then, if enrollment management staff were significantly integrated within the academic community. We all know that a major reason why students do not persist in college is because their expectations are not met. Congruence between expectations and what students find is what is ultimately called “fit.” We speak of “fit” during the recruitment process, but “fit” is really not determined until the retention process is in play.

Professionals in enrollment management do much more than recruit students and provide a pathway to aid. They share the responsibility for students’ success with every other part of the academic enterprise.

Low-income High School Graduates

once upon a time, printed on white paper

Eric Hoover’s article, “Where the Journey to College is No Fairy Tale(Chronicle of Higher Education, June 19, 2017), provides a glimpse into the harsh reality of students who don’t even make it to the starting line to become first-generation college students. Students with tremendous potential – who could begin the pattern and set the standard for siblings and generations to come of family members attending college – are often left on the sidelines at the time of high school graduation because, even with financial aid, they are unable to attend the college to which they have been accepted.

And it’s not just finances. I’ve spoken with students whose families were  unable to give them any kind of support because they did not understand the requirements of the college admissions process, nor did they have any idea about what their student would experience once in college. I’ve spoken with students who navigated the entire application and FAFSA process without any assistance from a family member or counselor. Students who have a tireless and dedicated counselor are indeed fortunate. But, as Hoover’s article points out, there are limits to what a counselor can do. In the end, it comes down to how much financial assistance students are able to garner.

In addition to financial aid and other college support, there are charitable organizations that raise funds to help local low-income students begin college. With financial assistance from multiple sources, some students are able to cobble together enough for tuition, fees, and books for the first semester or year. During this first year, they often work while taking a full load of classes to have enough money for living expenses. If these students are unable to continue college to graduation, they feel as if they have failed; the college questions whether or not the support services provided were adequate; and the charitable organization that raised funds to help the student becomes discouraged, thinking that students they help might not be giving their all to succeeding in college.

In figuring out what else students need to continue on to degree attainment, the tendency is to look for the no-cost answers, such as the need to assign role models, coaches, and mentors to low-income students. Although I am a strong proponent of all types of support and encouragement for students, without realistic and adequate financial support, students from low-income families are not going to get to the starting line. And without realistic and adequate financial support beyond the first year, those who are able to reach the starting line may not be able to cross the finish. If you talk with low-income students like those Hoover found in his visit to Seagoville High School, you will find that financial insecurity is a major barrier to a college education.

It’s daunting to think about how much is required to fully support a college student today. But, if the longer term entire expense is not factored into the plan for the student to attain the degree, there is a high probability of loss regarding goal achievement. Of course, there are the lucky students who find a way to hang on despite the financial hardship. However, luck is a risky gamble – one that many low-income students understandably don’t think they can afford to take.