Colleges Must Meet Students Where, Who and How They Are

As colleges and universities continue to manage their way through persistent enrollment declines and approach the edge of a predicted demographic cliff, a familiar phrase is rearing its head as the solution: Meeting students “where they are.”

There’s nothing wrong with the idea on the surface. It’s certainly the case that colleges and universities shouldn’t expect students to come to them. Rather, institutions should proactively engage and support learners no matter where they are in their learning journeys as they travel to and through college.

But this notion of meeting students where they are is also conveniently vague. It captures a general sentiment that colleges just need to work harder to bring students into higher education. It implies that a few well-placed billboards and some clever social media posts might be all colleges need to do to get students pouring through their gates. 

Simply meeting students where they are is not nearly enough today, especially because a growing number of prospective students are unsure if they want to attend college at all. What if instead college admissions officers saw their responsibility to students not as just meeting them where they are — but who they are, when they are and how they are? 

So who are today’s college students? 

They are the most diverse group of Americans in terms of age, race and income level. A third are over the age of 25. More than 40% are students of color. 

Two-thirds of today’s college students have jobs, and two-thirds are borrowing money to attend college because their family incomes haven’t kept up with the price of college. Nearly half are first-generation college students who might struggle with the application process because their parents or family members lack the experience to guide them. Because the national ratio of high school counselors to students is more than 400 to 1, it’s unclear how many young adults are getting good, sound guidance on their educational futures after high school. 

How are today’s college students doing? Not well. 

They are nervous because of the economic turbulence of the past three years. The pandemic adversely affected their preparation for college, which is showing up as higher-than-normal in foundational college courses and general dissatisfaction with the academic experience. Anxious and stressed-out college students report that their campuses are in the midst of a full-blown mental health crisis.

Where and when are today’s college students? 

They are online practically all of the time, from early in the morning to late at night and all through the weekend. Generation Z, those born after 1996, are digital natives who grew up online. Nearly all of them have smartphones. This hyper-connected generation has never been tethered to any sort of 9-to-5 routine. To them, everything and everyone is open and available at any hour. 

All of this suggests there might be multiple barriers standing between colleges and prospective students. Another way to view it: There are infinitely more opportunities to reach students in new and meaningful ways. 

There is an emerging playbook that colleges are implementing to reach students in more intentional ways. Those ways are: 

  • Collaborating with nearby high schools and school districts to build pathways from high school to college. Dual-enrollment programs can increase both high school and college graduation rates. Curriculum, especially in high-demand STEM areas, can potentially be aligned from college all the way through high school and down into the early K-12 grades.
  • Establishing "instant decision day" when college counselors go to high schools to evaluate transcripts and help students fill out application forms. These campus visits reduce much of the friction in the admissions process. Though students might not enroll at your institution, they see that college is possible — and a lot closer and more convenient than they might have thought. 
  • Deploying technology. Prospective students don’t often check their emails, but they closely watch their text messages. AI-powered chatbots accessible 24/7 can help students navigate the admissions process and get answers to questions such as how to make an appointment with an adviser or how to pay a bill. At Georgia Gwinnett, we work with Mainstay, whose research suggests that emerging technology is especially helpful at getting first-generation students into college and through it.
  • Checking in with prospective students regularly — but not too often. Young adults are under a lot of pressure these days, and many are embarrassed to ask questions. Technological solutions that provide frequent and structured communication in a behaviorally intelligent way can suss out some of the issues students are dealing with — academics, money and jobs, parents and families or all of the above. Being able to respond with emotional and contextually relevant messaging can build a stronger relationship between the student and the school. It’s important not to overwhelm students with messages that become bothersome, annoying and ultimately tuned out. The goal of these regular check-ins is to be helpful and supportive.
  • Asking them quick, occasional questions. Sometimes a short survey — Do you have any questions? Have you signed up for orientation? — can be a good way to check in, let students know that you care, and provide a path to communication or support. It’s a good idea to touch base with students right after the semester starts when they are feeling the most vulnerable. 

Reversing recent enrollment declines makes good business sense for colleges. But increasing college attainment rates nationwide makes even more sense. If more institutions can help students in smart and intentional ways gain access to college, more young Americans will find themselves on firm pathways to social mobility and prosperity.

Dr. Michael Poll is Vice President of Enrollment Management and Institutional Research at Georgia Gwinnett College.