DE&I in Higher Ed Enrollment Marketing

Attracting greater diversity takes more than targeted marketing

November 12, 2020  

The quest for greater diversity on college campuses has long been a need, but only recently has it been backed with so much intentionality. Many institutions have pulled diversity, equity, and inclusion to the top of their enrollment goals. However, for many institutions, simply increasing student diversity without addressing equity gaps may be a short-term or even harmful pursuit. 

Without proper structures to support the success of diverse students, increasing diversity is simply funneling more students into an environment that may not enable them to thrive. It benefits enrollment data — but not the students. For an expanded and detailed view on this, check out the Center for Urban Education at University of Southern California.

This approach can negatively impact retention, student success, and outcomes, along with many other factors of the student experience. Students love to share their experience via social media like @blackivystories, college search sites like niche.com, and other public forums like the ApplyingToCollege subreddit. that your current and future students read. What do you hope they’re saying about your student experience? 

Institutions that want long-term success and to be taken seriously for their DE&I work should dismantle established processes and practices — the ones that were most likely centered on the needs of a traditional undergraduate student with above-average means — to rebuild an infrastructure centered on the needs of a more diverse student body. Not sure what that looks like? Consider the testimonies on @dearPWI or check out Ethel’s Club for some inspiration. 

A tall order, I know. But no one is expecting it to happen overnight. It’s a commitment to continuous improvement. And it requires well-planned communication. When done well, communication can fuel the journey — to do its part in contributing to positive change. 

Here are seven practices to reach and engage a more diverse prospective student pool.

  1. Define what diversity means to your institution — Greater diversity for the University of Alaska requires a different definition than for UCLA or Howard University or Smith College. Ensure that your staff knows exactly what diversity means in relation to your institution’s goals.
  2. Recruit them like 5-star athletes — There is more competition than ever before for historically marginalized students. The best and brightest of these students have multiple options. They’re being offered generous financial aid packages and a considerable amount of personalized attention. If you can’t compete with financial aid, win by developing 1-to-1 relationships with them. Introduce them to their peers and facilitate conversation; have their future teachers and mentors email them directly; connect them with current students who carry similar backgrounds; invite them to alumni events and make it possible for them to attend. Go the extra mile because you’re asking them to commit to you not for a degree, but for a lifelong relationship.
  3. See them fully, and name them — Many students carry life experiences that have been pushed to the margins. The more you can center their experiences and make decisions that directly recognize and benefit these students, the more they’ll be able to visualize your school as a place for them. This can be as simple as including pronouns in email signatures, profiles, and feature stories, or broadening the diversity of students shown in photography.
  4. Understand that under-represented does not mean under-resourced — These terms refer to completely different sets of life experiences. There is overlap, but one is not inherently linked to the other. To illustrate this as clearly as possible: there are many well-resourced Black, Latino, and Hispanic students. And there are plenty of under-resourced White students. Fight the urge to conflate these terms, and start thinking about them as separate populations, both containing racially and ethnically diverse individuals.
  5. Adopt an asset-based narrative — Asset-based narratives recognize and name the strengths of an individual beyond their academic metrics. Identifying and acknowledging an individual’s unique set of skills and personal power helps students receive communications in a new way because we’re not centered on the traditional markers of success such as GPA, AP coursework, class rank, or a number of extracurricular activities. This shift in thinking can be a tricky one to master, especially considering the pervasive amount of coded language in higher education, as pointed out by Class Trouble. Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D. offers some really helpful guidance on approaching marginalized communities with an asset-based narrative.
  6. Don’t censor or filter reality — Students today are asking for you to be straightforward with them. So stand confidently exactly where you are as an institution, acknowledge the opportunities to improve, and be forthcoming with the steps you’re taking to move forward. Students respect institutions that are honest about their situation, and your future students deserve the chance to opt-in (or out) of being part of the change.
  7. Adjust your marketing channels — Many deserving students and families are still without broadband internet access in their home. Families that do have access may be bound to mobile devices only – PEW Research Center reports more than 95% of teens have access to a smartphone. This presents an opportunity to shift your entire enrollment ecosystem — inquiry, application, financial aid, form submission, registrar, first-year experience — from a digital-first to a mobile-first approach. Imagine trying to complete the FAFSA on a smartphone. Go through your own enrollment process entirely on a mobile device and see what opportunities you can find to enhance the experience.

I’ll leave you with this: communication can be the catalyst that unites your current and future community around a shared vision for DE&I, and it can fuel that vision by creating a desire to change behaviors. But your strongest DE&I message to prospective students is best delivered through demonstrated action, resources, and a full-on commitment to improving, not communication tactics targeted to diverse 17-year-olds.