Does Your Admissions Office Have ‘Cultural Intelligence’?

Chicago — The modern admissions office doesn’t need a good student-recruitment plan—it needs many of them. After all, what resonates with one applicant might not matter to another.

At the ACT’s Enrollment Planners Conference here on Friday, two admissions officials described how class and culture affect students’ college choices. The discussion was based on Inside the College Gates: How Class and Culture Matter in Higher Education, a recent book by Jenny M. Stuber.

Generally, upper-middle-class applicants look for different things than working-class students do. The former group tends to seek campus events in which they can play a role, as well as information about Greek systems, study-abroad programs, internships, and opportunities to live and socialize with students “like them.” The latter group is likely to care most about financial aid, opportunities for part-time jobs, career services, job placement, and maintaining connections with their family and high-school friends. Building a résumé is what some students talk about; working hard is what others talk about.

The parents of affluent students typically play a large role in choosing a college. They are likely to see the admissions process as an opportunity to “leverage” merit awards from several institutions.

“We often see the families who least need these resources ask for them first,” said Stefanie Niles, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Hollins University.

But the parents of less-affluent students often are not as involved—or savvy. For those families, college choices might be more coincidental than intentional, said Terry Knaus, senior associate director of admissions at Indiana University at Bloomington. In his experience, parents of lower-income students have a “take what you can get” view of aid packages.

“‘Whoever makes the best offer, that’s where my kid is going,’” he said. “Often with working-class families, a class is a class is a class.” In other words, they might see colleges as more or less interchangeable.

Understanding those differences can help admissions officers create varied recruitment plans. “To target and segment messages,” Ms. Niles said. Some applicants don’t need to be told that study-abroad programs might connect with their career goals, for instance, but others, who don’t know that, might assume such opportunities are just about fun. Keeping such distinctions in mind is a way to apply “cultural intelligence” to recruiting.

We all know the confident suburban kid who saunters into college with long-term plans to become a chief executive, and colleges do much to sell the ways in which they prepare students for future greatness. But other students have more-immediate concerns. Mr. Knaus often hears this question from parents: “Can my kid get a job while they’re there?”

A good strategy: Don’t wait for them to ask.

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