As my daughter begins her sophomore year of high school, we are starting to think more about college and the complex web of admission requirements. Though I work in higher education, I know very little about what it takes to get into highly selective schools. It’s a black box. But as we figure it out, we have advantages – and that’s the larger problem.

My daughter attends a college preparatory school, where this week they are hosting an admissions director from Georgetown University. He’ll talk about navigating the college search and application process. While my daughter and I are fortunate to attend this event, I am struck by how inequitable the system is. It’s no coincidence that he is coming to her school. We know that institutions use recruitment strategies to target the students they want to apply and enroll. Schools that prioritize visits to mostly white, affluent high schools are, in practice, adding to longstanding college attainment gaps for students of color and low-income and rural students.

Many recruitment, admissions, and enrollment policies and practices – particularly at selective schools – regularly exclude those students who most need help navigating the process. That reality grew more severe when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to curtail the use of race in college and university admissions. So Lumina Foundation’s partners at the Campaign for College Opportunity launched a national initiative, Affirming Equity, Ensuring Inclusion, Empowering Action. The nonprofit is providing evidence-based solutions in a set of briefs and toolkits that advance more equitable strategies – so that every student has a fair chance.

To start with, the effort tackled four policies and practices: recruitment strategies, demonstrated interest policies, early admission deadlines, and legacy admission policies. Here are just a few highlights of policy recommendations for colleges and universities to consider:

  • Offer unique recruitment opportunities to students in rural areas and to low-income students. These might include virtual campus visits or fly-in programs, which include travel vouchers to schools that students ordinarily could not afford to visit.
  • Make sure students understand that showing interest is expected of applicants and help them understand how to effectively engage with schools during the admissions process.
  • Stop prioritizing prospective students’ on-campus engagement. This unfairly penalizes students who don’t have the funds to travel to campus, stay overnight, or interview in person.
  • Use internal data to examine who applies and is admitted via early action deadlines to uncover the inequities worsened by these campus practices.

Though selective schools sit at the heart of this issue, less selective institutions can also make changes to longstanding inequitable policies and practices. One example includes making tests optional or eliminating them entirely. And while implementing percentage plans to admit top students from local high schools hasn’t made a big impact on its own, in combination with small scholarship funds and more targeted college recruitment efforts at rural or less familiar high schools, these holistic efforts can create new opportunities.

While college admissions could reduce racial and socioeconomic inequity, it often does the opposite: blocking the economic mobility that college degrees can offer. No single policy or practice can make admissions equitable, but there is a lot educators can do, starting with reworking and simplifying recruitment and admissions tactics in a comprehensive way – helping students and their families for generations to come.

Colleges must commit to leveling the playing field, opening the door for all students – not just mine – regardless of race, income, background, or circumstances. Only then can we move on to the important part: sharing in the power of learning.

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