Greeting the New Students

Small private colleges are preparing to deal with demographic shifts in their student populations.

November 6, 2012

SAN ANTONIO – It’s somewhat fitting that the Council of Independent Colleges’ annual institute for chief academic officers is here in the city that saw the highest population growth between 2000 and 2010, and the second-highest growth between 1990 and 2000, with much of that growth coming from Hispanics.

The Southwest is unfamiliar territory for many of the roughly 700 private colleges and universities represented by the council. Many of which are located in the East and Midwest, and the demographic groups that have contributed to this region’s booming growth have not been reflected in the student bodies or admissions strategies of many of these colleges.

It is clear from one look at the institute's agenda that serving such students is a growing prerogative for many of these colleges, particularly as they face decreases in their traditional demographics, increased competition from public institutions, and mounting pressure to tap into new revenue sources.

“Many of you will have to rethink everything you are doing in terms of recruiting students,” said Henry G. Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in a televised message to the conference.

The demographic change poses numerous challenges to the colleges represented here. It encompasses a group of students who often need more help paying for college, which can put strain on institutional budgets, since most financial aid at CIC institutions comes in the form of reduced aid rather than payouts from endowments. Confronting the barriers that keep many of these students from succeeding once they enroll, including poor educational backgrounds, a lack of understanding of and preparation for the rigor of college courses, and managing pressures from home (such as the expectation of involvement in family life, and financial and emotional support), is also a new challenge for many of these institutions.

The agenda here was designed to allow institutions that have historically served such groups, such as Our Lady of the Lake University here in San Antonio, to begin to share some of the lessons they’ve learned.

Seventy-five percent of Our Lady of the Lake's students are Hispanic, with many hailing from urban San Antonio. In recent years, the college has doubled down on the mission of providing accessible Roman Catholic higher education for students who might not have the chance to get that elsewhere. "For a long time we were missing the point that this neighborhood, in this city, was the point of this university," said Tessa Martinez Pollack, the university's president. "We're transforming students through extraordinary effort."

Population Shifts

Cisneros’ talk, which opened the day Sunday, centered on the demographic shifts happening in the U.S., in which Hispanic students are likely to make up about half the country’s population growth over the next 40 years. “Growth will not be the problem,” he said. “Our challenge is to take that new demography and prepare them to take their place in the new America.”

At the same time this explosive growth is happening, many of the states where the bulk of CIC institutions are located will experience declines in the number of students graduating from high school. In recent years, many colleges that had been largely regional in nature have begun to expand their recruitment efforts to help ensure robust enrollments over the long term. That is bringing about a shift in the composition of their student bodies.

Cisneros and others over the course of the institute have hit on the fact that students making up that growth in the college-going population tend to be less interested in higher education, come from underperforming public school systems, and face more financial barriers.

While public universities might in the past have been expected to accommodate the new students, that seems less likely to be the case in coming years. States such as California have decreased funding for public higher education, and community colleges and state universities have placed limits on enrollment, some for the first time in history.

And many say public institutions currently don’t do a good job serving the underprepared students they do admit, pointing to low graduation and completion rates.

CIC regularly champions numbers that show that first-generation, underprepared, and minority students graduate at higher rates from private colleges than public institutions. “There is a fundamental place for your kinds of institutions,” he said. “You’re smaller, and more nimble. You provide intense student experience. I think there’s a critical role to be played.”

Meeting New Needs

In one presentation, administrators from St. Edward’s University and Franklin College talked about pre-college summer programs they designed for first-generation students to foster support networks, introduce students to the rigorous work expected of college students, and demonstrate the resources available to them on campus.

Fostering a peer support group was key to Franklin’s success, administrators said. “When we asked students what worked for them, how the program helped you, they pointed to the support they get from one another,” said David Brailow, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at Franklin.

Franklin is trying to mimic the success of the program in other student groups, adding information sessions about college expectations to their football camp, for instance.

A tension emerged between this and other sessions about how much to recognize students as first-generation or in need of additional assistance, since that runs the risk of stigmatizing students, which then might result in drop-outs.

In another session, administrators from Mercyhurst University and California Lutheran University detailed the success they had in encouraging first-generation students to transfer from community colleges.

A major barrier that several administrators in the audience here noted is that serving such students is resource-intensive. Having adequate financial aid – often in the form of tuition discounts, since most institutions in CIC have small endowments – is key to college success for these students, administrators noted.  And many colleges in this group are already struggling with discount rates around 40 or 50 percent.

Several panelists noted that potential cuts to the Pell Grant would be highly detrimental to their budgets.

Poorly prepared students also tend to require more academic advising, writing coaching, remedial courses, tutoring, face-time with faculty members, and student services, all of which cost money.

In one session, which focused on efforts to improve student retention, several college administrators talked about how their efforts had run into “plateaus.” They found that, no matter how much effort they put into retention, they could not get some students to persist. At a time when there is increased public scrutiny of colleges that struggle to graduate the students they admit, these administrators worried that a low persistence or graduation rate could hurt their institutions in the long run

Changing the enrollment profile by accepting fewer underprepared students might be the only way to move the dial, they said.

But other administrators in the audience pushed back against this conclusion. Given the demographic shifts, they said, the problem of these students not being prepared and being likely to drop out is one that the institutions don’t have the luxury of avoiding.


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