Four Tips for Increasing First-Gen Student Yield

A new report from the Pell Institute (pdf link) suggests that without more students from low-income and working-class families earning bachelor's degrees, the United States will be unable to meet the Obama administration's college-completion goal. As demand for college education rises among lower-income families amid a troubled economy, and as the pressure mounts on completion rates, more institutions are beginning to assess their strategies for recruiting and retaining first-gen students.

We addressed the issue in Higher Ed Impact recently, interviewing Mary Ontiveros, Colorado State University's vice president for diversity, who suggested four tips for boosting application rates for lower-income, first-gen students. This week, we turned to Thom Golden, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt University, for four additional tips -- this time for boosting yield.

What Keeps First-Gen Admits From Enrolling?

When asked why first-generation admits opt not to enroll, Golden several barriers:

  • Concerns over affordability
  • Lack of clarity about financial aid (how it's applied for and when; what the award amount means, etc.)
  • Lack of clarity around aid eligibility

The American Council of Education has released several studies indicating that over 1.8 million low-income and middle-income families who would have qualified for college aid failed to apply. Golden notes that the issue is particularly pronounced in first-generation college families. "We often assume that if a student needs aid, they'll apply, but this isn't necessarily the case," he warns. Golden cites focus group findings that revealed two reasons why many first-generation students did not apply for financial aid:

  • Some didn't believe they would qualify
  • Some believed that the deadlines had passed

"If your school doesn't have strong preferential deadlines for aid," Golden advises, "make sure admits know they may be eligible and can still apply. And encourage them to apply even if they aren't sure they will qualify. In basketball, they say that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take. Communicate that to your admits."

"The competition is not as numerous as it often is with traditional students. The data shows that first-generation students are more likely to apply to just one to three colleges. That means that a little bit of personal attention to your admits can go a long way."
Thom Golden, Vanderbilt U

Golden suggests these four practices to help you overcome the obstacles to improving first-generation yield:

  • Connect with the parents -- especially Mom
  • Improve and simplify your financial aid communications
  • Train staff in both admissions and financial aid for the conversation about affordability
  • Think creatively about low-cost, high-return campus visits

Connect with Parents

Golden advises that your strategy for parent communications may need to be different for the families of first-generation students. Citing current research, Golden notes that first-generation students who of traditional college age indicate that parents (particularly mothers) are key influencers in the decision to pursue a college education, but that their parents (who have not been through the college experience themselves) are not the ones helping them gather information during the application process.

In most cases, parents are influencers but not information sources for first-gen students.

This implies that institutions seeking to improve first-gen yield need to both open direct communication with prospective students and invest in educating their parents about the application process and the college experience.

Golden recommends:

  • A phone call to the student -- make sure to get the student, not just the parent, on the line: "Do you understand the financial aid offer we made you? I have it in front of me, can I walk you through it?"
  • Seek volunteers from among the parents of current students, and encourage parent-to-parent phone calls: "Build a network, make personal connections between parents"
  • With the letter of admittance, send a letter written by a local parent

Improve and Simplify Financial Aid Communications

"Financial aid offers can be confusing," Golden remarks, "and this can be a significant deterrent to an admit enrolling. They want to know, at a glance, what they need to pay back and what they don't. Is it clear if there's a gap? The clearer you can be, the better this will help them make an informed decision about enrolling."

Golden recommends: simple wording, use of color-coding to highlight the most important and relevant information, quick bullet lists, and a highly scannable or "at-a-glance" structure to the information you send. Also, make sure that directions on how admits can get additional information are both clear and visible.

Train Your Staff for the Affordability Conversation

"We're used to 'you apply, then you talk about financial aid.' For lower-income, first-generation students, you have to flip the sequence. You have to address affordability before they even entertain the idea of enrolling."
Thom Golden, Vanderbilt U

"This is a hard conversation to have," Golden adds, "because financial aid is never a guarantee. Many financial aid professionals are nervous about the net price calculator (NPC) because they worry that someone who fills it out will assume that is the aid package they will definitely receive. But realize that concerns over affordability have to be addressed. An NPC, for example, may allow someone who would otherwise have self-selected out on account of sticker price, to take the chance an apply. Overall, that's a win for your campus."

In this Higher Ed Impact article, Mary Sapp, Assistant Vice President of Planning and Institutional Research at the University of Miami, who has chaired two Technical Review Panels for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) addressing issues related to net price, offers advice on how institutions can determine whether to use the NCES template or customize their own NPC.

"You have to train the storyteller," Golden advises. This means cross-training your admissions counselors and your financial aid staff. You need to help admissions counselors overcome any hesitancy about discussing affordability with a student or parent, and you need to educate the admissions team about financial aid. Golden recommends:

  • Have admissions counselors complete the FAFSA themselves
  • Have them explain during a training session what a particular financial aid offer says and means
  • Make sure they understand when to turn the conversation over to a financial aid expert

By the same token, Golden suggests, it's important to train financial aid staff to recognize that part of their job is to aid in "closing the deal" with an admitted student. "Help them understand that there is language they can use that can be helpful, and other language that can be off-putting or can close down the conversation."

This cross-training is crucial because an admitted student or parent may not care whether they are talking with an admission counselor or a financial aid officer -- in both cases, they are talking with your college or university, and they will assume that what they hear is the institution's position on both their questions and their concerns. "Emphasize with staff how important these conversations are," Golden advises, "and arm them with the information they need to answer difficult questions."

Low-Cost Campus Visits

"The campus visit is the most impactful experience students can have during the admissions process -- yet first-gen students are the least likely to visit campus. Think outside the box about how to get them there. If you get them to your campus, the chances of yield go up."
Thom Golden, Vanderbilt U

For example, Golden suggests encouraging campus visits through:

  • Travel vouchers or travel discounts
  • A chartered bus to bring first-gen students from a metropolitan area
  • A train pass

"This can be low-cost," Golden advises. "Think creatively. Can you contact an airline, a bus company, a shuttle company, some transportation company, and negotiate a significant discount because you are driving business toward them? You need to get that company on the line and find a way to do it, because you need to get the students to your campus."