With college enrollment down nationwide and student populations in the U.S. projected to continue declining, many institutions are desperately trying to find a way to move the needle on their enrollment and fight the impending current. Adding a layer of complexity, many colleges, particularly predominantly white institutions, have been charged with increasing enrollment of racially and ethnically diverse students, though necessary campus infrastructures often don’t exist and budgets are even tighter than in a “normal” year. (Whatever a normal year is anymore.)
The result of this desperation? Quick and easy action—based on assumptions—that’s rooted in pleasing institutional leadership demands, not serving prospective students of color.
Finding myself in a situation where this same directive came from the top, I knew there had to be a better, more ethical way to increase enrollment within these populations. I knew I needed data to have any chance of pushing back on the “quick and easy” tactics I was being directed to employ.
This led me to my thesis research, from which I’ve drawn the insights I’m sharing with you. I quickly realized that there’s not a lot of recent research in the area of racial/ethnic diversity recruitment marketing for colleges, and virtually none from the perspective of the students.
I found my opportunity to contribute to the research in this topic area by surveying students of color about their experiences being recruited by colleges and what their top factors were in considering schools. I conducted a 30-question survey that was completed by a sample of 66 racially and ethnically diverse college students, ages 18 to 24. A combination of open- and closed-ended questions revealed opinions about particular commonly used tactics, as well as preferences for future marketing practices.
In summarizing the findings, I’ll start by outlining some examples of the quick and easy tactics institutions use that I’ve alluded to:
- Overrepresenting racial and ethnic diversity through imagery in recruitment marketing materials to make the institution appear more diverse (and therefore attract more students of color), though the institution is known to be a PWI.
- Inviting students of color to special diversity recruitment events so they feel a sense of belonging, only to find the campus not very diverse when they enroll.
These tactics share a significant consequence: students of color feel intentionally misled by colleges.
Let’s deconstruct these common tactics as we outline three don’ts for recruiting racially and ethnically diverse students.
Tactics like the ones outlined above operate on assumptions. The main assumption here is that students of color are primarily or only concerned with the diversity of a campus when considering colleges.
My research actually showed racially and ethnically diverse students’ top deciding factor in their college choice was a university’s academic reputation (92.4 percent), followed by cost (81.8 percent), majors available (81.8 percent) and scholarship opportunities (60.6 percent). While diversity of the student body (43.9 percent) and faculty and staff (34.9 percent) were important, they were not the most important. Interestingly, the resources available for diverse students (50 percent) were more important to the participants than the actual diversity of the student body or the faculty and staff. Which leads well into the next don’t …
Don’t (Try to) Catfish
Oftentimes, while diversity is touted as a core value by many PWIs, necessary infrastructure is not in place to support students of color. For example, there may be poorly funded multicultural centers, a lack of institutional scholarships to support need and, in some communities, a basic lack of amenities like somewhere for students of color to get hair care. Instead of asking, listening and investing in or building what is needed, and then focusing on attracting more students of color, colleges tend to focus first—or only—on the recruitment piece. And prospective students know they’re being catfished.
This leads to distrust and can actually work against the college, though it happens so frequently it seems to be perceived as an acceptable and effective tactic—at worst, a low-/no-risk tactic—by many higher education administrators.
When I asked, “How do you feel about colleges having specific goals for racially and ethnically diverse enrollment (e.g., to increase the enrollment of nonwhite students by 25 percent in five years)?” 92.4 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “The university wants to appear diverse and inclusive,” compared to 50 percent who agreed or strongly agreed that “The university is diverse and inclusive.” Ouch.
In open-ended responses, participants used these words to describe colleges overrepresenting diversity through imagery: “sneaky,” “inauthentic,” “commodified,” “misleading,” “not fair” and more.
Specifically reflecting on being invited to admissions events for diverse students, 80.7 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the university wants to appear inclusive, whether or not it is. While 51.6 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the feeling “I would rather be invited to an event for students of all races and ethnicities,” 35.5 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they felt singled out because of their race.
Although 83.9 percent agreed or strongly agreed they felt “There are others like me at this university” and 64.5 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “I will have community at this university,” the issue lies in the inaccurate racial/ethnic representation at those events compared to experiences students of color have once enrolled at PWIs.
In one particular study by anthropologist Bonnie Urciuoli I read during my research, two students of color who’d enrolled at a PWI “spoke of visiting the school and meeting who they later suspect must have been every other student of color on campus.”
Students of color know colleges have enrollment goals for diverse students—“quotas” was the word many of them used in open-ended responses—and that they’re being targeted because of that. They feel they are only valued by the college for their race/ethnicity. Survey responses showed these students see many college diversity initiatives as self-serving and rooted in appearances, rather than in the authentic value that diversity of all kinds contributes to a college community.
In regards to overrepresentation of racial/ethnic diversity in imagery used by colleges, the majority of respondents (89.4 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that the overrepresentation is intentional, with more than two-thirds (68.2 percent) agreeing or strongly agreeing it is misleading and more than half (53 percent) agreeing or strongly agreeing the practice is dishonest. In contrast, only 3 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the overrepresentation was unintentional, 12.1 percent agreed or strongly agreed it was reasonably accurate, and 9.1 percent agreed or strongly agreed that it was an honest act. Ouch again.
Now that we’ve reflected on some common practices and heard about the impact from the target audience, let’s talk about some dos.
If you really want to diversify your campus, ask students of color what they want and need. Ask current students, prospective students, recent alumni, community members—ask them all. You can guess all day long, but your audience is captive, willing to tell you what they think and really wanting to see some change and authenticity from colleges (and, often, be part of the change). What made them ultimately choose or not choose your college? What was their main deciding factor? How has their experience been as a student of color on your campus? What could your college do better? What are challenges they face? What resources or support do they need? Ask it all.
As part of my research, I was required to list my contact information in case any respondents had questions. I’ll never forget one student, who called me and left a voice mail thanking me for asking those hard questions and for spending the time to ask her what she wanted and needed. She said no one had ever asked, and it left such an impression with me.
Do Localize Your Data
The data I’ve shared with you are localized predominantly to a particular region in the U.S. (the Southeast), so I cannot say this enough: localize your data! This is part of why it’s critical to conduct your own research with your target audience. Depending on your campus and your region, your audience’s top deciding factors in college selection may vary significantly from another college’s. Their experiences also may vary, depending on cultural factors specific to your region. National data are helpful, though limited in this topic area, but nothing provides the insight you need like data localized to your specific audience. And, while you’re at it, keep them fresh. Refresh your research every few years as things change and evolve. Mine’s already two years old, and look how much has changed since late 2019. (Understatement of the year?)
Do Put in the Work
Don’t just do the research: put in the work to improve, build, fund and prioritize what these students want and need. Put the work—and the money—where your mouth is. If your college touts diversity as a core value, show the ways you’re working to improve it and what your measurable goals are (I’m not talking enrollment numbers here: I’m talking funding goals for diversity support services, scholarships, amenities, etc.).
Survey respondents noted over and over that colleges don’t have to be perfect when it comes to diversity, but that they want authenticity from colleges. They want to know it’s a priority and how it’s being acted on, even if there’s a long way to go.
Numbers and goals have been driving this conversation for too long. Let humanity, empathy and data guide you first and foremost. When you don’t know, ask. When you think you know, still ask. When you get an answer, act on it, or make a measurable plan to act on it. Be authentic, own up to your shortcomings and lay out the path forward. Invite prospective students to be part of the path forward—heck, ask them to help lead it. Just ask.