Barriers to College Enrollment

Jason LangdonSenior Vice PresidentJanuary 21, 2021

I grew up poor. No one told me we were poor, but there are plenty of cultural reminders and barriers you face each day when you have less than those around you. Like a lot of poor kids, I didn’t really know much about the college search process—a lack of knowledge that’s one of the greatest barriers to college enrollment, especially for first-generation students. However, I was fortunate to be a recruited athlete. Coaches guided me along the process and had me fill out applications and the FAFSA form. I was accepted and some super nice folks, Perkins and Stafford, loaned me the money to attend a lovely school in northeastern Pennsylvania.

I was fortunate to not fall through the cracks. This pandemic, however, is creating new challenges barriers to college enrollment for all students but particularly those who come from backgrounds like mine.

COVID has created seismic shifts that have impacted higher education and the students we serve. Some of these are actually good changes—flexible delivery options for education, for instance. Other such as student safety and economic security have significantly impacted marginalized students already facing difficult challenges to attend college. I’d like to focus on two trends we need to monitor and assess for the impact on students and their ability to navigate the college search process. If we are going to inspire students with the opportunity of post-secondary education, then we will need to change the ways we have traditionally recruited these students.

Barriers to College Enrollment: COVID has particularly made it hard for marginalized students to attend college.
Campuses need to move beyond traditional means of engaging students and removing barriers to college enrollment.

Re-engaging “missing” students

Like many of you with school-age children, my family’s school district has been in a hybrid environment this year where students can either do in-person learning or remote learning. I was having a conversation with one of our local school administrators early in the school year, and she expressed concern that they were missing about 10 percent of the student population.

This is nationwide phenomenon. Politico wrote an article about this in October, and you see this story replicated across the country. Bellweather Education Partners estimates that as many as three million students are no longer attending school. These students tend to be from the most marginalized of our population and those that would benefit the most from educational opportunities.

The long-term ramifications for these students and our country are significant. If we cannot figure out ways to reengage these students and accelerate their learning to get back to grade level, it will have substantial economic impacts. Higher education will need to find new ways to engage these students, removing the barriers they live with each day.

Changes in test policies

According to our friends at Fair Test, two-thirds of four-year colleges in the United States are test-optional or test blind for fall 2021. This shift in policy is removing a significant barrier for many students. The College Board announced earlier this week that they are phasing out the subject tests and the essay portion of the SAT. Many states have removed the requirements for high stakes testing of all students. These changes are either the result of the pandemic or changes that were in process and then accelerated by the pandemic. I don’t think you will find many people disappointed in this trend, but what is the result? It will most certainly remove a barrier for students, especially for those whom every barrier to enrollment limits their opportunity to post-secondary education. Increasing opportunity is at the core of why so many of us got into higher education, so this result is exciting.

Keep in mind, however, one of the unintended consequences is that if the number of students who take the exams decreases, it would reduce the number of students available for traditional student search. Many of these changes are beneficial for students and should be applauded, but they may require colleges and universities to adjust their traditional recruitment policies.

Embracing changes to remove barriers to college enrollment

Those adjustments should already be happening anyway, because the pandemic has accelerated change and created new challenges for the students we are most trying to help. I think some good things will come out of all of this, but we cannot go back to the same old recruiting and enrolling students. We’re past the days of linear search of licensing PSAT names, sending a letter in a window envelope, then emailing students about the opportunities at your campus. Your campus needs to make it easy for all students to meet you in ways that are familiar to them. Consider these seismic shifts as examples of how big a change needs to happen regarding engaging students post-pandemic.

Let’s talk about how you can boost access and enrollment

At RNL, we are consistently working to figure out the best ways to engage all students and help those who need it most. The smart use of technology, which can engage students in various ways, combined with some of the traditional methods, will become the “new normal” for recruiting all students. In the coming weeks, you will learn more about some exciting developments of how RNL will be a leader in helping campuses navigate student recruitment post-pandemic. We’re also here to chat with you at any time—reach out to set up a time to talk with us.

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About the Author

Jason Langdon

Jason Langdon leads RNL's undergraduate enrollment team of sales consultants. He has more than 25 years of higher education enrollment experience at both private and public campuses across the country. His particular areas of expertise...

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