It is fair to say that admissions policies in higher ranking universities and colleges have predominantly favored high-achieving applicants. While much has been written about access, affordability, diversity and student loans, one can argue that the focus on grade point average, aptitude tests and the reputation-enhancing concept of “selectivity” has negatively impacted minorities and underprivileged applicants.
These “underserved students” have now become the target of more progressive policies for a few reasons, one of significance being the decline in the number of high school graduates over the past several years. A recent Hechinger Report shows for the sixth straight year, total enrollment in higher education continues to drop and there were more than 2.6 million fewer students enrolled in fall 2017 compared to fall of 2011.
As a result, a new recruitment approach is underway at many universities, catering to these underserved students. This isn’t just a way for colleges and universities to increase student enrollment, and thus improve their economic outlook. Fortunately, there continues to be a growing recognition of the value of diversity and social altruism – one long held by universities that have historically served these populations.
So let’s examine the approach of my institution, Woodbury University, a small, private, non-profit institution in the San Fernando Valley. Founded in 1884, one of its core principles is gender and ethnic diversity. It is a Hispanic Serving Institution with 26 percent of undergraduates Hispanic and about 23 percent representing over 40 international countries. So how has it expanded educational opportunity and access?
First, some background. Traditionally, many of Woodbury’s students are from lower socio-economic status, many have had less opportunities in college preparedness, and many are first-generation college students. What they bring with them is an earnest desire to learn, and a belief that through the attainment of professional and academic skills, they can advance their lives, their families’ lives, and the communities they came from. At its essence, the university’s tradition is to provide the engine for upward mobility through a university education.
A core principle is close faculty-student interaction to provide a personalized, practice-based education which is built on the idea of personal transformation that can positively affect others. The objective is to help students make a difference in all that they do – in their classes, on campus and in their communities.
With limited resources, Woodbury has used its time-tested institutional knowledge to create new academic tracks for these underserved students and, importantly, the student support services which are essential to help these students succeed to graduation. Throughout this process one of the main objectives was to reinforce the school’s legacy and reputation in serving less-prepared students. It insisted on maintaining academic quality and its focus on student success while making changes in admissions standards. And it has built these programs on three key principles: transformation, experiential learning and a culture of engagement.
So what do these programs look like?
One of these academic tracks is called the Bridge Program. Requirements include: enrollment in a summer Bridge course; meetings with the associate vice president of academic affairs; assignment of an academic peer mentor; a journal requirement working with the Writing Center; meetings with a library liaison; and enrollment is a special personal and professional development course which facilitates the transition to a four-year institution. It also focuses on co-curricular opportunities, and the university’s strategic principles that make the student experience unique. This suite of academic resources also provides students with the tools necessary to document and reflect upon their university journey. Importantly, these resources will also be integrated with other existing support systems, such as the Math, Science and Subject Tutorial Center, and enrichment programs that target students with special needs.
We in higher education have a moral, collective responsibility to ensure a diverse, inclusive and engaged civil society. We will never achieve this goal if we do not recognize the value and perspective of the underserved in our society. If we don’t, our failure in providing full access to higher education will have a profound impact on our region’s global competitive position.
As a former business executive, I have concluded that the old business model based on well-prepared students is not working for many institutions of higher learning. It is time for a reality check and a change in model.
David Steele-Figueredo is president of Woodbury University in Burbank. Born in Venezuela of Latino heritage, he is a seasoned corporate executive who has gained wide experience on the influence of culture and education on social issues.