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In 2010, ‘Highly Selective’ Means ‘Highly Accessible’ ― by Doug Christiansen
Monday, April 26, 2010
By Douglas L. Christiansen
Vanderbilt University has long been dedicated to attracting top students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. We learned in recent years, however, that our best efforts were no longer good enough; too few of the nation’s low- to middle-income students with top academics knew a degree from a highly selective university like Vanderbilt was available to them.
Despite modifications to our aid initiatives, we saw the percentage of students on aid decline from a peak of 46 percent of incoming freshmen in 2006 to approximately 42 percent in 2007 and 2008.
We set a goal in 2008 of getting the percentage of students receiving aid back to 46 percent by 2011. We met that goal in 2009, two years early. While we know the economic recession played a role in this increase, we also believe that a portion of it is due to the comprehensive strategy we employed to identify and engage with these students early in their high school careers.
The strategy grew from our low- and middle-income task force, created in late spring 2007, to evaluate our outreach to these students. The task force’s primary goal was to understand what was keeping this sector of students from realizing that a Vanderbilt education is possible. Our research indicated we needed a new and comprehensive recruitment and engagement strategy.
The next step was for Vanderbilt to implement a unified effort to prepare the students to successfully navigate the admission and financial aid processes. To do so, we launched a wide variety of access-related recruitment programs, financial aid initiatives, and external partnerships — 110 at last count.
Vanderbilt, as a university, took a stand and made a huge commitment to these students. We believe excellence has no financial limitations and set out to break down any remaining financial barriers keeping a student from attending Vanderbilt. By replacing loans with grants for current students and initiating our no-loan program for all entering students who qualified, we were able to reach these students in a different way. We also expanded our financial aid pool.
To get the word out about these new opportunities, we turned to our long-standing tradition of partnerships with community organizations focused on increasing college participation and persistence. We joined the College Board’s pilot Access Success program, which provided us with the names of Pell-eligible students. We sent admission and outreach communications to every name we received, informed the students they could have their fees waived for testing and applying to college, and expanded our communications to high schools.
We began engaging with potentially Pell-eligible students in 9th and 10th grade so that they would begin to understand early in their high school careers that they could receive a superb college education, and what they would need to do academically and in their extracurricular activities to get there.
We started attending college fairs none of our peers attended, counseled students on how to fill out financial aid forms, communicated with high school counselors about our financial aid programs and brought more students to campus. We launched a new outreach initiative, Vandy Fan for a Day, which hosts prospective Nashville-area freshmen, sophomores and juniors at a football game and gives them admission and financial aid information in a small-group format.
We sent the message loudly and repeatedly: We are interested in you and in your success. We sent that message with the aim of finding that one student, that one mind and one voice, that otherwise may never have considered Vanderbilt or any other highly selective university.
Data from Access Success shows us our efforts are paying off. Before this work began in earnest in 2007, 11.58 percent of Vanderbilt undergraduates were eligible for Pell Grants. Currently, our total Pell-eligible population has increased to 13 percent, and we believe we are on track to meet our goal of 14 percent.
While we can document our success in numbers, the father of one prospective student tells the story better than any spreadsheet can. “I’ve driven past Vanderbilt every day for years,” said the Nashville delivery truck driver after his child participated in Vandy Fan for a Day. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think my child would be welcome walking through these gates, and I certainly never thought a Vanderbilt education would be possible for him. Now I know it is.”
Making a Vanderbilt education accessible to all excellent students and ensuring every student has a place on our campus is a mission championed by the chancellor and university leadership and shared by every Vanderbilt employee. Had this been a goal solely of enrollment management, we may have seen some improvements, but they would not have been sustained, nor would the promise that these students bring to us be realized. Through our united efforts, particularly between our financial aid and admission staff, we are making a difference to this group of students. By empowering them with a vision of hope and possibility for their future education, we are changing not only their lives, but the lives of those they will impact going forward. Whether or not they attend Vanderbilt University, their lives have been changed through our outreach, and they have also changed our lives as we have come to know their stories, their energy and their dreams.
Vanderbilt has made such a significant investment in these students for one very simple reason: It is the right thing to do. Our expanded outreach and recruitment efforts are enabling us to find those individuals who bring to campus the diversity of thought, the diversity of choice and the diversity of spirit that are the foundation of today’s Vanderbilt.
Read more about Vanderbilt's outreach, admission and financial aid efforts.
Douglas L. Christiansen, Ph.D., is vice provost for enrollment, dean of admissions and assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University.