As admissions officers take to the road for recruitment travels this fall, I recall some of my earliest trips over 30 years ago across small towns in Pennsylvania and growing southern cities like Charlotte, North Carolina. Back then, the University of Pennsylvania received only a fraction of the nearly 45,000 applications we received this past year. Of course, many students and families were familiar with Penn and might have known that the school is part of the Ivy League. But, they may not have known of our vast resources for financial aid or may have had the perception that they did not belong at an ‘elite’ institution. When I enrolled at Penn in 1983, I myself felt like an outsider, coming from my small Catholic high school (which is no longer open) in rural upstate New York. It was that feeling of being out of place that pushed me to grow as a young adult over those four years. It is that same opportunity for growth and challenge, provided by a college education, which continues to motivate my colleagues and me in this work today more than thirty years later.
As part of Penn’s outreach, we travel with colleagues from Duke, Georgetown, Harvard and Stanford so that families can hear from five schools in one program. Our admission officers also host stand-alone events in secondary schools, meet with local community based organizations focused on college access, and engage with alumni regionally who interview applicants later in the year. These broad outreach efforts are not focused on drumming up more applications for the sake of being more selective (in fact US News and World Report no longer factors in selectivity in determining school rankings), but rather our outreach and recruitment efforts mirror the aim of our educational philosophy: to create a learning environment in which our students can learn from the broadest range of opinions, perspectives and experiences. In short, to learn from a diverse group of peers.
Over the last four plus decades, the oldest colleges and universities in the country have moved from being geographically regional, and socio-economically similar, schools to becoming nationally, and increasingly internationally, representative institutions (Penn’s most recent incoming classes are composed of 15% of students educated outside the United States and one out of seven students are first in their families to attend college). Although the class I enrolled in at Penn was not nearly as diverse, by any measure, as the classes we enroll today, my experiences were shaped by classmates whose lived experiences and outlooks were vastly different than my own. I benefit from those perspectives to this day.
This year’s recruitment season begins with the government, courts and polarized public opinion as a backdrop to outreach efforts and selection processes employed by colleges and universities. If, as in other countries, we admitted students based on one national exam, there would be little reason to recruit a broadly representative class. We would just admit the 2,445 highest test scores to fill each Penn class. Admissions outcomes may be more predictable, however our classes would likely be less compelling intellectually and culturally. Our students might be less prepared for lives and careers in a highly global society and mobile world economy. We know that a diverse classroom benefits all learners. While protectionism and insularity are strong currents in politics and policy, they are man-made levies which will be breached by the real forces of demographics, technology, geography and economic change.
So for young and veteran admissions officers alike who will be logging miles on the road and nights in hotels in the coming weeks, know your work is a noble calling. For all colleges and universities, from community colleges to flagship state institutions (and everything in between), the diversity of our learning environments is the most distinguishing factor of American higher education. College life is one of the greatest opportunities for a young adult’s discovery and exploration, of their own and others’ views, before they head out into a world which is increasingly complex, interconnected and, yes, diverse. We hope that students’ experiences on college campuses that resemble the world they will enter upon graduation will enable them to meet that world with self-awareness, open-mindedness and hope.