How to ensure college admissions are equitable and accessible

Aimee Huffstetler shares advice on what higher education administrators can do to ensure a more equitable and accessible admissions process for all students

Aimee Huffstetler 's avatar
Gwynedd Mercy University
6 Oct 2022
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First generation student worried by the college applications process
image credit: iStock.

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Once upon a time, a high school diploma was the baseline for what was needed to be successful in many professions. Now, many lines of work require a college degree, and at times advanced degrees. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to advance or change your career without furthering your education beyond high school.

To make matters worse, the college admissions process is stressful for everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are. But some applicants have it easier than others.

Wealth, privilege, connections, accessibility to resources and an understanding of the process are bona fide game changers that open doors for the lucky ones, and prevent the less fortunate from getting the same opportunities – and it’s been that way for a while.

Students from families in the top 1 per cent are 77 times more likely to be admitted – and attend – Ivy League schools than those coming from families who earn less than $30,000 a year, according to a 2017 study led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty. In fact, 38 US colleges had more students from the top 1 per cent than from the bottom 60 per cent.

Education is supposed to be the great equaliser, but it’s hard to deliver on that promise when there’s not a level playing field. Just 23 per cent of students in a recent BestColleges survey say they feel the college admissions process is fair, while almost half (44 per cent) think colleges should help underserved populations pursue higher education.

Now more than ever, universities must take proactive steps to ensure that the admissions process is both equitable and accessible. Here are three steps to address this issue head-on.

1. Make application language straightforward

Language is one of the biggest barriers throughout the admissions process. This is especially true for first-generation students whose families never went through the experience themselves. There is even more to overcome for students and families whose primary language isn’t English if applying in a country such as the US.

Students who didn’t receive – or have access to – guidance on the application process may not be familiar with language on the Common Application (Common App) and may answer a question incorrectly without meaning to. We discovered this the hard way when many students misinterpreted the phrase “test-optional” on the Common App and our website application. This is just one example.

When you ask students if they’re planning to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, do they know what you’re asking? Many may not – and there are plenty more examples like this. You must put steps in place to guide them through the entire process.

Your goal should be to make the application process as seamless as possible, limiting confusion for prospective students. Ensuring that the language you use accommodates student applicants with a wide-ranging understanding of college admissions processes is a step in the right direction.

2. Raise resource awareness

Applying to college can be complicated. But there are resources available to help, and higher education administrators should be that conduit. For example, we recently revamped our website to make it easier for prospective students to access financial aid information, view graduation rates and see what alumni are doing after graduation.

Institutional websites should provide clear links to grant and scholarship opportunities, along with FAFSA resources. Alongside this, identify financial aid application deadlines, explain terminology and include ways to help students understand their aid package. We create resources for students and high school counsellors.

As stewards of higher education, we have a responsibility to ensure that students are aware of – and have access to – all available resources, and equally important, understand the difference between the various aid sources.

3. Make yourselves available

Not everyone can afford tutors. Not everyone knows they can apply for a fee waiver to take the SAT standardised test for college admission. Not everyone has access to SAT prep courses or college counsellors who can help them get their applications in tip-top shape.

Everyone should, however, have access to an admissions department that provides guidance and assistance every step of the way. But that happens only if you make yourselves available to those who need you the most.

Be the support system that students may not have at home or at school. Offer to review their college essays or steer them towards financial aid opportunities that may make college more affordable. Give them your time. Some prospective students have advantages that others could only dream of. With your help, students can access a more level playing field.

Admissions equity won’t happen overnight

The college admissions process isn’t simple, and it’s often not equitable. But we have a responsibility to give everyone a chance to pursue a college education.

There’s no quick fix to this systemic issue. It’s going to be a slow process. Yet we should be eager to take up the mantle. If not, we are not living up to our mission to prepare students for future careers and create a more educated society.

Aimee Huffstetler is assistant vice-president of enrolment at Gwynedd Mercy University.

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