Building Trust with Underrepresented Students and Families: A Guide for College Admissions Offices

March 19, 2024

igher education has faced an uphill battle over the past decade.

Among these challenges is the scrutiny being placed on the value of the investment by a public confronting skyrocketing tuition and student debt while seeking concrete employment guarantees for its students. More recently, the U.S. government has waded into campus politics, skewering values and safety, and sowing doubt and toppling leadership within some of America’s most elite colleges.

So what are admissions professionals to do in the face of historic skepticism and negativity?

First, accept that not all prospective parents and students can or will accept valid arguments about lifetime earnings or sticker versus actual price. Such explanations—while legitimate—

are beside the point for families who are suspicious of institutions or forced to prioritize current earnings over future ones. That doesn’t mean colleges should abandon their appeals to these families, however. If a prospect is clicking on your digital ad, filling out your online form, or attending a virtual webinar or in-person tour, they are looking to be convinced.

To have a shot at doing that in today’s cultural and financial moment, establishing trust with prospective students and their parents is paramount. This trust is the foundation upon which a transparent, honest and successful college application and admissions process can be built. In this guide, HAI delves into the strategies that college administrators can employ to foster trust, with a special focus on groups that often face unique challenges in the admissions process.

Meeting the Unique Needs of Diverse Groups

Before diving into the specifics of building trust, it's essential to recognize the diverse needs of prospective students and their families. First-generation, Pell-eligible and low-income students, as well as students of color often navigate uncharted territory when it comes to higher education. College administrators must be attuned to the challenges these groups face and tailor their approach accordingly.

To establish trust, colleges must develop specific support services for these groups. This can include dedicated admissions counselors who understand their backgrounds and challenges and can provide personalized guidance throughout the application process. Your admissions office should also proactively reach out to underrepresented communities through targeted outreach programs, informational sessions, and partnerships with community organizations. And be sure to provide comprehensive information and resources about financial aid options, including Pell Grants and scholarships specifically designated for underrepresented students. This includes guidance on completing financial aid forms and understanding the true cost of attendance. Other ideas include ensuring that information and resources are accessible to all applicants, including those from diverse backgrounds. This may involve offering materials in multiple languages, providing accommodations for individuals with disabilities, and offering support for students with limited access to technology. Finally, consider establishing peer support networks or mentorship programs where current students from similar backgrounds can offer guidance and support to prospective applicants. Connecting with peers who have successfully navigated the college admissions process can be invaluable for incoming students.

Cultivate a Culture of Inclusivity

To build trust, start by creating an inclusive campus culture that values diversity. This extends beyond just the student body to include faculty, staff, and administrators. When prospective students and their families see a commitment to inclusivity, it sends a powerful message that the institution is dedicated to providing a supportive and welcoming environment for all.

You can start by holding regular diversity and inclusion training for staff and faculty to ensure that everyone is equipped with the knowledge and sensitivity required to address the unique needs of different communities. HAI also recommends creating opportunities for feedback and dialogue to continuously improve the admissions process and support services for underrepresented applicants. This can involve surveys, focus groups, or advisory committees composed of representatives from underrepresented communities. And look for ways to emphasize and celebrate the diversity of the student body, highlighting the contributions and achievements of underrepresented students.

Foster Mentorship Programs

Establishing mentorship programs can be a powerful way to build trust, especially for first-generation and underrepresented students. Pairing prospective students with current students, alumni, or faculty members from similar backgrounds can provide invaluable insights and support. Such programs create a sense of community and offer guidance through the college application process. By showcasing successful individuals who have overcome similar challenges, colleges inspire trust and confidence in their commitment to supporting diverse student populations.

Transparent Communication

Transparency is the bedrock of trust, and clear and open communication is vital throughout the entire admissions process. College administrators should provide comprehensive information about admission requirements, financial aid, and available support services throughout the admissions process. You can do this by offering easily accessible resources, such as online guides, webinars, and FAQs, to address common questions and concerns. Clearly outline the application process, including deadlines and required documents. It’s also helpful to outline the admissions policies, including how applications are reviewed, how decisions are made, and any factors considered in the selection process (such as academic achievements, extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations). And be transparent about the criteria used to evaluate applicants and how much weight is given to each criterion. This can help applicants understand what is expected and how they will be evaluated.

Dismantle Financial Barriers

For an increasing number of students, finances are a significant barrier to pursuing higher education. College administrators can build trust by actively working to dismantle these barriers. For example, most admissions offices offer a baseline of information about financial aid options, scholarships, and grants. But consider reviewing your materials for opportunities to streamline the financial aid application process and provide resources to guide students and their families through it.

Your institution might also consider implementing need-blind admissions policies to assure students that their financial situation will not hinder their chances of acceptance. No matter what your school can or cannot offer to students, be clear about it. That includes listing and explaining your need-based aid and merit-based scholarship policies, as well as work study programs. HAI also recommends offering financial literacy workshops and counseling services to help students understand budgeting, managing debt, and making informed financial decisions.

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