Incoming College Students

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How Can You Best Support Incoming College Students?

Every year, admissions professionals travel across the globe to recruit the best and brightest incoming college students. Sometimes finding those students can seem like finding a needle in a haystack, especially when working to identify first generation and/or underserved student populations.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to finding those students. However, once you find them, you should be doing everything in your power to ensure that those students find success. After all, you worked hard to find those students, so you certainly don’t want to lose them over something small. That path begins with the very first interaction.

You’re in the Services Industry Now

Incoming college students and their parents today expect a high level of customer service when applying to college. Scaling a high-service, high-touch admissions program doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg if you are willing to shift your perspective about the role you play — and get creative about bringing your juniors, seniors, and college alumni into the fold.

A more customer-centric approach has infiltrated industries across business and healthcare, but higher education has been slower to adopt this mentality when engaging with its prospective students, students, and alumni. Admissions leaders may stand to benefit the most from adopting this perspective when recruiting students. After all, you are the ones actively working to convert a prospect into a customer. You have the most to gain — and the most to lose — of your higher ed administrative colleagues.

Adopting a customer-centric approach should affect each step in your recruiting process. Here are a few ways you might think about adjusting your service delivery to reflect this new mindset.

Meet Incoming College Students (and Their Parents) Where They Are

When working in admissions, you often have to sell the parent(s) on your university as much as you sell their student. This can be particularly difficult if you’re working with families where the primary language is not English. Consider investing your staff energy in converting print collateral in Spanish or Mandarin, for example, to help gain shared understanding.

This type of concierge experience may seem expensive. If you’re only considering the skills and resources for delivering these services in terms of your admissions team, then you’re probably correct in that assumption. There are ways, however, to operate with partners across the student lifecycle to offer prospective students, students, and alumni excellent service. For example, Gerald Doyle, Vice Provost for Student Success at the Illinois Institute of Technology, operates under a few key principles:

  • Always organize with at least 1, preferably 2 partners
  • Be generative and additive — not everything needs to be deconstructed or disrupted
  • Listen to and talk to those not at the table or welcomed to the conversation
  • Lead with purpose

You likely have thousands of alumni who are waiting in the wings, ready to share their experiences. You just have to ask them to share their story with the students who need the guidance most.

Parents are usually quite eager to help in some way (because their kid probably doesn’t want it), so let them. Parents can be a tremendous asset to the recruitment and yield process. They do not have to have gone to college, either. While you may want to tout your groundbreaking research and new buildings, at the end of the day, parents just want to know that their student is going to be well cared for once they’re no longer at home. That sentiment transcends all levels of education.

Address Their Most Pressing Needs Before They Have to Ask

First generation and low-income students face similar challenges as they make the transition from high school to college. It’s your job to anticipate them and meet them with resources that alleviate their concerns. Asking for financial aid guidance, or even simple transition-related questions like “Are meals provided during freshmen orientation?” may introduce feelings of shame. The more you can get ahead of these concerns, the more your incoming college students will feel like your university is a place where they’ll fit in and thrive.

Surveys are an oft-utilized and highly valuable tool, but it can be difficult to capture qualitative data, especially if it involves sensitive topics. In-person conversations during the recruitment process are the perfect opportunity to meet with students one-on-one to better understand their needs. The more conversations you have like this, the better you’ll be able to recognize trends across demographics and locations.

This type of proactive, customer-centric approach requires close collaboration across departments. Our goal at Wisr is to partner with higher ed leaders to unlock peer advising networks through a single community that interconnects core advising segments.


Become the Resource Hub, But Not the Only Resource

In our age of information, incoming college students often feel overwhelmed with the quantity of information about college, majors, careers, college life, etc. thrown at them. To avoid information overload, resources should be personalized enough that incoming college students receive the information they need exactly when they need it — not too soon before the need presents itself, and certainly not after they’ve articulated the challenge or need.

Choosing a college is the first major life decision a student will make. After submitting the deposit, many students are overwhelmed by the influx of social and academic decisions. Questions can range from how to pick the right sized bed sheets to how to find out if they need to attend faculty advising seminars to whether or not they “count” as first gen. These big questions marks add to the anxiety of arriving on campus, and their outreach to address these questions present critical touchpoints with the university. Something as simple as an unanswered email could be a signal that the university they’ve chosen to call home doesn’t care about them.

To nail the first…and second…and third (etc.) impressions, admissions and enrollment professionals should build on the points above: meet incoming college students where they are and anticipate their needs. The next step is not just about sharing resources, but sharing a network of resources with incoming college students. In this way, you effectively become the resource hub, connecting students with both the information and the people they need to succeed on campus.

Professional staff is expensive to hire and, for many schools, are not an option under extreme budget cuts due to declining enrollment. A cost-effective solution is to recruit upperclassmen who are looking to hone their leadership skills by serving as a mentor for incoming students. In our experience, we’ve learned that mentor matching doesn’t have to be 1:1 to be successful.

At the University of Chicago, through the College Programming Office, Wisr is creating mentorship “pods” where one senior is matched with around 30 incoming freshmen. The community creates shared accountability, with all members visible to one another. Incoming freshmen are connected to their mentor and given access to the community the moment they enroll, which increases a sense of belonging before stepping foot on campus and creates a smoother transition once they arrive. Using simple survey data, incoming college students are paired with peer and staff advisors based on a range of matching characteristics, such as academic interests, personal interests, and special affinities.

If you’ve never put together a dedicated strategy around matching students with faculty, staff, peers, or alumni, it can feel like a daunting task. To be fair, matching students with faculty or staff can present its own challenges. Nonetheless, this is a particularly powerful strategy for serving first-generation college students. Whether it’s through technology or face-to-face advising, supporting incoming college students by making peer networks readily accessible will help fill the gaps in advising that your staff struggles to reach, further cementing your brand as a resource hub that connects students with timely information and people.

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