College can be a springboard to success, yet its doors often aren't as easy to open for many low-income and underrepresented minority students.
And though many institutions have vowed to increase access, pervasive equity gaps have persisted or even widened. But a handful of efforts have allowed colleges to admit a more diverse class and help them persist.
At an event hosted by the Education Writers Association at the University of Michigan's main campus in Ann Arbor earlier this week, we learned from a handful of college officials and researchers about what initiatives are paying off, and why.
Sending personalized messages
Nudges — or digital alerts meant to prod students into making important decisions, such as filling out the FAFSA — can help low-income students enroll and persist in college when done at a small, focused scale.
For example, U of Michigan recently sent out mailers notifying 2,000 high-achieving, low-income students in the state that they were eligible for four years of free tuition and fees. Students who received the messages were more than twice as likely to apply (67%) and be admitted (32%) than students who didn't receive them.
"It didn't cost a dollar in grants," said Susan Dynarski, an education professor at U of Michigan who worked on the study. "It didn't change the students' eligibility for grants. It changed the way information was communicated to them."
But Dynarski cautioned that it's easy for colleges to mess up nudging campaigns. "If they didn't communicate the information about the eligibility clearly or didn't target kids who already had the skills that were required for college, you might find that it didn't work," she said.
That may be why a handful of recent attempts to scale nudging campaigns have largely failed to impact students' enrollment behaviors. While that has led to questions about whether nudges can solve some of higher education's thorniest problems, Dynarski thinks they still show promise. "Don't throw out these programs, but understand why they work," she said.
For instance, larger studies could have failed because they sent messages from national organizations that may not have had a relationship with prospective students. For nudges to work, colleges need to issue personalized messages from a familiar source.
"Are you going to listen to the nudges and the advice from somebody?" Dynarski asked. "Well, yeah, if you trust them and know them."
Assessing students in context
Students' educational opportunities in high school have long determined how likely they are to complete college.
For instance, while nearly half (48%) of students who graduated from higher-income high schools in 2011 earned a college diploma six years later, just one-quarter (26%) of students from low-income high schools did the same, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Colleges have been hoping to tackle the issue through holistic admissions, yet officials tend not to know enough about applicants' high schools and neighborhoods to understand their achievements in context.
That's largely because admissions officials often rely on high schools' self-produced profile sheets, which can contain inconsistent or inaccurate information, said Michael Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at U of Michigan.
"They're looking for some very consistent data that they need to help contextualize the achievements of the person (who) is in front of them," he said. "There's no standardized types of data included in (profile sheets)."
Recent research suggests collecting that information could help. When admissions officials were given standardized data about applicants' high schools and their performance relative to their peers, they were 26% more likely to recommend admission for low-income students, according to a 2017 simulated study.
That research has helped develop the College Board's Landscape tool, which provides admissions officers with standard data on applicants' neighborhoods and high schools. Between 100 and 150 colleges are expected to pilot the tool this year, and some have already reported that it has helped them admit more underrepresented students.
Changing the culture
Colleges have work to do once they enroll a more diverse group of students. For example, students who are the first in their families to attend college may run into several stumbling blocks, such as not knowing what office hours are or how to get the most out of them.
Helping students navigate those aspects of the college experience is key to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's (UMBC) Meyerhoff Scholars Program, said Keith Harmon, its director.
Launched 30 years ago, the program has made strides in retaining and graduating more underrepresented students in STEM by offering its mostly minority students an array of supports, including scholarships, advising and mentoring.
"They need to learn how they best learn. They need to learn to manage their time (and) the expectations of STEM. ... All of these things we just think people know — they don't."
Director, Meyerhoff Scholars Program
Meyerhoff students are 5.3 times more likely to enroll in a STEM Ph.D. or a combined M.D./Ph.D. program than those who were invited to join the program but chose to attend another college. Other institutions have seen similar successes after they duplicated the program on their own campuses.
Harmon credits some of that success to a bridge program in which students must participate that teaches them how to be effective college students, including how to email their professors and host study groups.
"They need to learn how they best learn. They need to learn to manage their time (and) the expectations of STEM," he said. "All of these things we just think people know — they don't."
It also helps students know where to go for help. "They appreciate it junior year, when the rigor comes," he said. "They now have a learning system and a personal compass to really hold up to those challenges."