By Casey Welch
Over the past year, colleges have struggled to adapt to the challenges presented by COVID-19, between the pressure to move entire degree programs online and the question of how best to connect with potential students in the absence of traditional events like college fairs and campus tours.
The obstacles faced by institutions of higher education have only increased over the years, and even when students can safely return to campus, it’s clear that colleges will be left with a critical, unsolved problem: how to prioritize diversity and inclusion and reflect those values in their recruitment practices.
According to a recent survey, 25% of Gen Zers decided not to apply for a college because they feared being treated unfairly due to their gender, ethnic or racial identity. Many are speaking from personal experience: Over three-quarters of respondents said they had witnessed discrimination in school and over half have experienced it themselves.
Colleges already experiencing a decline in enrollment can course correct through simple adjustments to how they prioritize and reflect the fundamental values of diversity and inclusion in their recruitment practices. This change will have a significant impact, not just on application and enrollment numbers, but on their long-term relevance as institutions of higher education.
Recruiting the next generation of college students, therefore, will require a shift in focus and a strategy that prioritizes a diverse campus culture, where all will feel welcome and appreciated for their differences, instead of ostracized. Recruitment practices are the ideal place for colleges to begin making the importance of diversity and inclusion clear, especially since prospective students are actively looking for the motivation behind initiatives that promote these values, and not just proof of their implementation.
Prioritizing diversity begins by ensuring that college recruiters reflect the background and identity of the students they’re hoping to attract. Almost two-thirds of students indicated that they would be more likely to apply to a college where the recruiter shares their racial or ethnic identity.
The next step toward inclusion is for colleges to be aware of what, exactly, Gen Zers include within that concept. For these future students, diversity and inclusion don’t stop with respect for racial or ethnic differences, they must also include an understanding of the importance of gender pronouns.
The majority of students emphatically agree that recruiters should ask for their preferred gender pronouns, but only a fraction have ever had a recruiter pose that question. Including this question would be a simple change to the existing process, but it’s one notable place where recruiters are missing the mark and missing out on potential candidates.
Colleges that have already undertaken initiatives to increase diversity and inclusion need to communicate the results of those efforts more effectively, such as through statistics and student testimonials that speak to the authentic impact of these changes over time. Respondents also highlighted a few other ways colleges can increase awareness of their dedication to these ideals, including drawing attention to programs or classes that promote diversity and a demonstrated commitment to social justice. Considering how important these criteria are to prospective students, putting in the work to implement these changes will be ineffective in attracting new students if there’s no visibility of their impact.
Simply advertising these changes isn’t enough, however. Colleges should clearly communicate how they plan to continue working toward a more diverse and inclusive environment, as well as why those changes are important. Prospective students are taking a harder look not only at the success of these initiatives but also the motivation behind their implementation, in their consideration of where to apply.
Changing the look and language of recruitment is an easy switch, but it’s also a powerful one that will have a lasting impact on the future of college enrollment. Gen Z is placing a heavier emphasis on these distinctions than any prior generation, and colleges need to start doing so as well in response.
The next generation of college students is looking for more than an idyllic campus and an exhaustive list of course options; they’re looking for a safe environment that reflects who they are and the future they hope to create. By prioritizing diversity and inclusion and reflecting those values in their recruitment practices, colleges can demonstrate their commitment to actively welcome a diverse community of students and ensure their continued relevance.