College admission reps are putting loyalties aside to help thousands of applicants

The nationwide American College Application Campaign has helped half a million students apply to college by giving them access to the experts, says Melissa Caperton

May 15, 2018

Every autumn, Nebraska’s EducationQuest Foundation hosts Apply2College, an annual school-day event to support students as they prepare for and complete the college application process. Started in 2014, the statewide initiative has grown from six to more than 200 high schools in 2017, engaging 75 per cent of Nebraska’s high schools over the life of the programme. With the support of colleagues such as Gordie Coffin, director of admissions at Nebraska Wesleyan University, who served on the state-level steering committee and whose staff has volunteered at schools across the state, Apply2College has helped nearly 20,000 students submit more than 30,000 college applications – and not all of those applications are going to NWU.

Nebraska’s Apply2College event is part of the American College Application Campaign, a national initiative of the American Council on Education that aims to increase the number of students who apply to and enrol in college, with a particular focus on first-generation students and students from low-income families. At ACAC, we work with all 50 states and the District of Columbia as they coordinate school-day college application programmes each autumn. During the 2017 initiative, almost 6,300 schools across the country hosted events, resulting in about 500,000 students submitting approximately 835,000 college applications.

By 2020, we aim to reach 80 per cent of high schools nationwide. A lofty goal, but we are well on our way to that target as we engage more schools and students across the country every year.

The application campaigns are run independently in each state, with various public and private entities organising the effort with technical assistance from ACAC. However, regardless of the state, the goal of the programme is the same: to support all students at participating high schools as they navigate the college admissions process.

Part of that support includes ensuring that students are prepared for the application process. Do they understand if they qualify for application fee waivers? Have they written their college essays in English class and do they have the final versions ready when they attend the college application event? Have they conducted research to identify where they want to apply?

Volunteers such as the NWU staff are available during college application events to ask these questions and to answer any questions students have about the applications they are working on. They also provide students with individualised support and advice. We have found that college admissions representatives often are among the best-informed resources for this role.

This could put admissions representatives in a potentially awkward position: recommending or providing support to students who are submitting applications to institutions that are not theirs. But what we’ve found nationally is that admissions representatives are not only up for the task, they embrace the opportunity to support students as they find their individualised paths to college – even when that path doesn’t lead to their institution.

At NWU, Gordie explained, they characterise their admissions work in one of two ways: mission or margin. Mission work deals with the fulfilling aspects of admissions regarding personal impact on students’ lives. Margin work relates to achieving enrolment targets needed to sustain the university. “Many would see these as a striking dichotomy,” he shared, “but we have found there to be great harmony between the two. Nebraska’s Apply2College campaign has provided a great opportunity for us to graft these two elements together.”

Because the college selection process is so personalised, driven not only by a student’s academic record and career goals but also by the type and location of institution they want to attend and what they can afford, we ask our ACAC volunteers – including college admissions representatives – to check their allegiances at the door. While higher education institutions see an increase in applications during Apply2College, these events are not intended to be recruitment opportunities. Rather, they are about identifying and supporting students through their individualised paths to post-secondary education.

NWU’s application numbers have trended up since Apply2College began in Nebraska. The programme’s efforts also help to break down barriers to entry once students are admitted, which has bolstered enrolment at many schools. But Gordie attests that, while Apply2College has helped with the margin work, the real fulfilment has come in the mission work.

“We’ve been able to offer our expertise to the first generation student who is submitting her first college essay,” he said. “We’ve offered honest opinions to the student who has struggled during his high school career. We’ve collaborated with high school professionals to better understand how we can craft an application for admission that relates to all students. We’ve been able to leave these events knowing that we’re impacting students’ lives.”

Melissa Caperton is a director at the American College Application Campaign.

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