Darryl Jones is hunting for certain kinds of students, and he’s riding up the elevator here, in a faceless office park north of Chicago, to find them.
A recruiter from Gettysburg College, a small, highly selective school in Pennsylvania, Jones is looking for top students from nontraditional backgrounds: those who are the first in their families to attend college, perhaps, or those who come from low-income families. To do that, he has to seek out young people in places that colleges and universities for many years didn’t bother to look, like this 3rd-floor conference room.
Gathered around the table are 10 teenagers who have come from a handful of schools in and around Chicago to find out about Gettysburg College. They showcase the kinds of diversity Jones is after: They’re Latino, African-American, multiracial, immigrants, or the children of immigrants. They excel at violin and computer science. They study Japanese and calculus. They pepper Jones with questions about research and internship opportunities on campus.
Unmet Promises is an occasional series examining the challenges facing disadvantaged students who show academic potential.
If the recruiter has his way, this meeting could be part of the solution to a vexing set of problems educators are trying to solve: how to diversify college campuses and provide appropriately challenging college matches for students. Many students—particularly those from low-income families and those who are the first in their families to attend college—choose colleges that are too easy for them. High schools have a central role to play in changing that pattern. But so do colleges, in how they recruit students and how they support them once they arrive on campus.
To find accomplished students like the ones at this meeting, Jones has to build many layers of contacts in the territory he scours for Gettysburg: New York City and a swath of the Midwest. Instead of visiting only exclusive private schools or high-flying public schools, he’s got to discover standout schools that are less likely to be known outside their neighborhoods and to build relationships with counselors there to find the star students.
Jones has found this group of 10 by nurturing his connection with the Schuler Scholar program. The 14-year-old nonprofit identifies promising students from nontraditional backgrounds in 8th grade; supports them through high school with academic enrichment, mentors, and college counseling; and helps connect them with top colleges. In the busy fall recruiting season, Jones racks up 15-hour days, flying and driving to countless meetings like this. Today, as the sun sets, he looks into yet another round of fresh faces.
“So, what are you panicking about?” he asks the teenagers, who welcome the chance to laugh in the middle of this high-stress college-application season. “Take a deep breath,” he says, and they all do.
Tailoring the Message
The meeting is sprinkled with the kinds of selling points that mark college-recruitment sessions: research and study-abroad opportunities, campus musical groups, the chance to work closely with professors. But Jones also comes prepared to address the needs of students who often feel marginalized on college campuses and typically have greater financial need than more-affluent applicants.
He promises generous financial-aid packages and tells the teenagers that the college’s office of intercultural advancement will “help in your adjustment to a new environment that’s decidedly different than the Midwest.” The close-knit nature of the campus means that he and other administrators will keep their eyes on them and be ready to intervene if they struggle, he said.
“We get that as first-generation students, there is an adjustment to a highly selective college and we get that there are needs you might have,” said Jones, a senior associate director of admissions. “We care about that transition, we study it, and we know how to make it an easy one.”
Gettysburg has developed a reputation among college-access organizations as a place that works hard to support first-generation and low-income students. Its freshman-to-sophomore-year retention rates and its five-year graduation rates are higher for minority students than for its overall student population. Figures like those put it squarely in the sights of those who run the Schuler Scholar program.
The program doesn’t try to pair its students with just any college. It aims for the most-selective colleges, and nearly every one of its students ends up at such a school.
Demisha Lee, Schuler’s director of college counseling, says that’s because top-tier schools tend to have higher graduation rates and strong alumni networks that can enhance graduates’ job prospects. They also confer “cultural and social capital” that can benefit minority, low-income, and first-generation students.
Schuler Scholars are expected to live on campus at their colleges, too, because.
“The playing field is unlevel for these kids already,” said Candace A. Browdy, Schuler’s executive director. “Living on campus is a leg up from an unlevel playing field.”
Connecting With Parents
Reaching move-in day at college dormitories requires a lot of careful relationship-building with families, however, since many parents who haven’t experienced college can be reluctant to let their children live on campus, Lee said. Schuler program counselors spend many hours talking with parents, holding their hands when their teenagers go on overnight Schuler trips, and taking them along when students go on campus visits.
As hard as college-access programs work to connect students with colleges, Browdy has seen a shift in recent years in how colleges are trying to find potential students. “They don’t just go to the New Triers, to Highland Park, Deerfield, and Evanston anymore,” she said, naming Chicago-area schools and suburbs known for their wealth and high achievement. Until about six or eight years ago, the most-selective colleges did “virtually no outreach to the communities we serve,” Browdy said. “Now, they visit annually.”
Jones has seen that shift, too, in 30 years of working in admissions at Gettysburg.
“In the past, colleges and universities would go to Spence, Brearley, and Chapin when they were in New York,” he said, referring to exclusive private schools in Manhattan. “But now, we’re also stopping at Cristo Rey on 106th Street, and the. We want to make our campuses look like the rest of the world instead of just an ivory tower.”
Jones makes it his business to find schools that have built track records of success with nontraditional students. He spends time prowling the hallways and sitting in the back rows of classrooms, too, to get a sense of how and what students are learning. It helps him know what he’s getting when applications from those schools cross his desk.
That kind of shoe-leather-recruiting research is still unusual, even as the recruitment landscape shifts to include more below-the-radar high schools, said Deborah Santiago, the vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education, a Washington-based group that pushes for better school outcomes for Latino students. More common is the college representative who sets up a table for an hour, chats with whomever stops by, and then leaves, she said.
In the last few years, Excelencia has fielded more calls from colleges and universities wanting help finding promising Hispanic students, and how they can do a better job supporting them on campus, she said. “We are definitely seeing attention to this in ways we had not earlier.”
The organization advises the institutions to invest heavily in community outreach, using alumni from that community, if possible, to connect with families to share information about their campuses. Working with trusted local community groups, too, can yield information about promising schools and students for recruiting and can offer a forum for imparting information about the college, she said.
“Colleges and universities are seeing, little by little, that they can’t just wait to see who comes to their doorstep,” Santiago said. “They have to go get them.”
Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2015 edition of Education Week as College Scout Mines Below-the-Radar Schools for Talent