Opinion | Colleges Recruit at Richer, Whiter High Schools

Colleges like to tout their commitment to diversity, but the way they recruit students tells a different story.

For example, the typical high school visited by Connecticut College during recruitment events was richer and whiter than the typical high school they didn’t visit.

An analysis of 41 other colleges and universities shows a similar trend: high schools that were visited for recruiting events tended to be whiter and wealthier than schools that were not visited.



The findings come from newly collected data on high school recruitment visits, when colleges send representatives across the country to court potential students. We gathered data on these visits throughout 2017 for 150 colleges and universities. (The data does not include other forms of recruitment like brochures, emails and visits not posted online. It also cannot account for instances where a high school may lack the capacity to host recruitment events.)

Knowing which high schools receive recruiting visits is important because debates about access to higher education often focus on students’ abilities but ignore how colleges identify and prioritize prospects.

A study by Meagan Holland at the University at Buffalo found recruitment visits aren’t merely an indicator of each college’s priorities; they also influence where students — and particularly first-generation students — apply and enroll. The study found that many smart kids from less affluent backgrounds are sensitive to “feeling wanted,” often attending colleges that took the time to visit.

High Schools Receiving Visits Were In Wealthier Neighborhoods






Median neighborhood income for …

Typical skipped high school

Typical visited high school

Rutgers U.–New Brunswick

U. of Massachusetts–Amherst

North Carolina State U.–Raleigh

U. of California–Irvine

U. of Pittsburgh–Pitts. Campus

U. of South Carolina–Columbia

U. of Cincinnati–Main Campus

U. of California–Berkeley

Southern Illinois U.–Carbondale

Median neighborhood income for the typical high

school that was …

Rutgers U.–

New Brunswick

North Carolina

State U.–Raleigh

U. of California–

Irvine

U. of Pittsburgh–

Pitts. Campus

U. of Cincinnati–

Main Campus

U. of California–

Berkeley

U. of Nebraska–

Lincoln

Southern Illinois

U.–Carbondale





The clearest finding from our study is that public high schools in more affluent neighborhoods receive more visits than those in less affluent areas.

Only about a third of households across the country earn more than $100,000 annually, but nearly half of high schools receiving visits by private colleges and universities were in neighborhoods where average incomes were higher. Connecticut College visited neighborhoods with an average median household income of $121,578. Private colleges also disproportionately visited private high schools over public high schools.

Andy Strickler, dean of admissions at Connecticut College, said the school targets high schools that have historically provided students, or other schools that have a similar profile.

He said there was a good reason Connecticut College doesn’t always visit other areas: “There’s a trend for these students to stay closer to home for college.”

While public research universities visited rich and poor neighborhoods nearly equally when recruiting in their home states, they visited the same affluent high schools targeted by private colleges when recruiting elsewhere. Most public colleges also visited far more high schools out of state than in-state. The median income of areas where the University of Pittsburgh recruited out of state, for example, was $114,000, compared with $63,000 for areas that were not visited.






Average median income for the typical visited high school …

Rutgers U.–New Brunswick

U. of Massachusetts–Amherst

U. of California–Berkeley

U. of Pittsburgh–Pitts. Campus

U. of California–Irvine

Southern Illinois U.–Carbondale

U. of Cincinnati–Main Campus

U. of South Carolina–Columbia

North Carolina State U.–Raleigh

Average median income for the typical

visited high school …

Rutgers U.–

New Brunswick

U. of California–

Berkeley

U. of Pittsburgh–

Pitts. Campus

U. of California–

Irvine

Southern Illinois

U.–Carbondale

U. of Cincinnati–

Main Campus

U. of Nebraska–

Lincoln

North Carolina

State U.–Raleigh





The attention public universities lavish on wealthy out-of-state schools is a response to state policy. Over the past decade, many states have cut funding for higher education, forcing public universities to become more dependent on tuition revenue. Research shows that public universities responded by enrolling more out-of-state students, who often pay two to three times more than state residents. And of course, only well-off students can afford that.

JL201.jpg

When Boulder visited the Chicago metro area, they did not tend to visit schools like East Chicago High School, where only two percent of students are white.
Joshua Lott for The New York Times

Some people argue that poor students and students of color are less likely to attend college because they have lower grades or standardized test scores. But we found that colleges and universities tended to avoid visiting schools in poor areas even when those schools had a large number of students who had performed well on tests.

For example, when the University of Colorado Boulder visited public high schools in the Boston metropolitan area, it focused on schools in wealthy communities but skipped many poorer schools that had higher numbers of students scoring proficient in math.

In their out-of-state visits, our data also suggest, public universities were more likely to visit predominantly white public high schools than nonwhite schools with similar levels of academic achievement. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder visited Dover-Sherborn Regional High School, which is 88 percent white and has about 154 students with proficient math scores, according to the federal Department of Education. But it did not visit Brockton High School, where just 21 percent of students are white but about 622 students have proficient math scores.

“In order to be good stewards of our funding, we consistently recruit at schools that have historically given us applications,” said Colleen Newman, admissions director at Boulder. “Given our limited funding, we are unable to expand our traditional recruitment efforts to all regions and all high schools that have academically talented students.”

Recruitment is Big Business

20162college0135.jpg

A recruiter for the University of Alabama, right, speaks to prospective students at a National Association for College Admission Counseling college fair at Suffolk County Community College.
Michael Nagle for The New York Times

Colleges don’t treat recruitment lightly. It’s big business for colleges and the firms they hire. Most colleges identify prospects by purchasing lists of students and their backgrounds from the testing agencies College Board and ACT. They can also hire enrollment management consulting firms, which integrate data from the university with data on schools and communities. This helps them decide which schools should be visited and which should be targeted with emails and brochures. One consulting firm we spoke with even knows information about individual students such as their family income and net worth, and the value of their home.

If colleges have all this data, why aren’t they better at targeting talented poor students and students of color?

The most common explanation is that there aren’t enough of them applying (the so-called achievement gap). Another explanation we hear is that talented students don’t apply because they don’t have the right guidance (called “under-matching”). These explanations assume that doubling the number of high-achieving students who apply would automatically double enrollment. But this treats universities as though they are passively receiving applications, when they are actually actively seeking and encouraging certain applicants over others. Our data suggests universities are determined to court wealthier students over others, and they expend substantial resources identifying and reaching them.

There are many students from poor communities who get excellent grades but end up going to a community college because no one bothers looking for them. If colleges are serious about increasing socioeconomic and racial diversity, they should look for merit everywhere, not just in wealthy, white communities.

Ozan Jaquette is an assistant professor at University of California-Los Angeles’ Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. Karina Salazar is a doctoral candidate at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.

Graphics by Jessia Ma and Stuart A. Thompson

Throughout 2017, we collected data from over 150 colleges and universities that posted off-campus recruiting events on their admissions website. For each institution, we collected data from every page containing data on recruiting events. Data was collected once per week. Every two months, we re-investigated each institution to identify new pages or changes in formatting to an existing page. Additionally, we collected data about participation in National College Fairs and group travel tours. Income data from the census was matched to the high school using its zip code.

We define off-campus recruiting events as those focused on soliciting undergraduate admissions applications, hosted by paid personnel or consultants at any off-campus location. Nearly all colleges and universities convene three broad types of off-campus recruiting events: receptions/college fairs at hotels and convention centers; evening college fairs at local high schools; and daytime representative visits to local high schools. Some institutions in our sample did not post all three types of recruiting events on their admissions website. This story includes only institutions that posted all three types of recruiting events on their admissions website. Nevertheless, our data should be interpreted as all events advertised on admissions websites, rather than as a complete list off off-campus recruiting events. Non-visited schools are an average of all high schools in states where the college made at least one visit a high school in the state. More data can be found at emraresearch.org.

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