Student recruitment is consistently the biggest hurdle for new programs. Convincing educators, parents, and students of the benefits of a Knowledge for Freedom program is more difficult than you may imagine. Stories from our newest programs illustrate some of the specific challenges we face:
At University of Rochester, Joan Rubin originally decided to work with East High School--a formerly failing local school with a pre-existing relationship with the University. Initially, she partnered with a teacher who designed a master’s degree program around the project, but that teacher became seriously ill. After postponing the program for a year, she then worked to recruit other teachers, and even paid several to attend an information session about the program. Only two teachers from that session ultimately followed through, although they proved to be great partners.
At Ursinus College, Paul Stern was connected with four area high schools by someone who runs college scholarships in those schools. Only two of the administrators showed any interest and only one actually followed through. At that school, it was a guidance counselor who inspired enthusiasm for the program among faculty. She recognized that her students had many opportunities for summer STEM programs at large universities but nothing in the humanities and nothing at liberal arts colleges, and was eager to fill that gap. The guidance counselor got other high school teachers on board, and they ended up sending 21 students to Ursinus for its first summer. Paul and the teachers prioritized getting as many students into the program as they could, and so several members of the first cohort did not necessarily fit their target demographic, something they would like to improve upon for next year.
Both of these institutions worked with one high school for their first year and plan to partner with multiple schools in subsequent years. Joan found an ally at her university’s admissions office who recently invited her to speak to 70 guidance counselors from high schools across the city. After her talk, one teacher approached Joan saying she already had several students in mind who would be perfect for the program. She is hopeful these teachers can help her overcome challenges from last year, including competition for students from other University programs. Paul continued to make new contacts at other area high schools and now schools are reaching out to him and showing interest in the program.
To overcome educator ambivalence look within your university for partnerships that already exist and ask your colleagues for introductions to high school principals or organization directors. Rochester found a sympathetic partner in the Admissions Office and library staff; Ursinus got connected to schools through a local scholarship program. For Columbia, student aides from Teacher’s College and staff at the Double Discovery Center have opened up some high schools that were otherwise unresponsive. From the experiences of these and other schools we recommend a robust student recruitment effort that includes the following steps:
Identify potential recruitment partners.
Teachers and students in your community may have good reasons for being skeptical of your program. Depending on your university’s footprint in the community, local schools may be wary of your plans. Educators might be getting multiple requests like yours to recruit students for various programs and they need a reason to invest their limited time helping you. Be prepared to run into the problem of competition from other programs that serve the same student population, as well as summer school and summer jobs.
If there are no existing programs on your campus that work with local high schools, you might have luck emailing and calling principals, guidance counselors, and teachers directly. You might also try reaching out to community organizations, especially those that are education-based and work with your target demographic. Persistence is key: you may have to send multiple emails and make several calls before you get any responses. Once you’ve made contact with a potential recruitment partner you’ll still have to invest time in building their confidence and interest in your program. At Carthage, for instance, Ben DeSmidt and Eric Pullin were able to double the size of their program when they invested more energy into building their relationship with their partner high school.
Win your recruitment partner’s full support.
Once you’ve identified individuals who may want to help, you’ll want to get them on board with your recruitment goals by sharing your own enthusiasm for the program and finding out what appeals to them and their students.
Ben DeSmidt and Eric Pullin found that high school counselors are most receptive when programs offer tangible benefits to students. Both Carthage and Ursinus offer college credit, and all programs have provided college letters of recommendation to students. Paul Stern’s recruitment partner was most interested in how his program offered students exposure to a liberal arts education and humanities curriculum. Other programs have worked individually with counselors to determine the specific kinds of students who would most benefit from or be interested in the program. When a counselor leaves a conversation saying “I have some students who would be perfect for this” they are often more likely to follow through with recruitment.
What will your program offer to high school students?
Consider the following:
- College credit
- Letter of recommendation from a college professor
- Introduction to college level work in the humanities
- Comfort on a college campus and familiarity with college resources
- Increased confidence in reading, writing, and discussing challenging texts
- Higher participation in civic life including voting, volunteering, attending public forums, and contacting representatives
- Expanded network of mentors and teachers invested in helping the student reach their college goals
Give your recruitment partners specific ways to support your efforts.
This will be key to turning their enthusiasm into action and bringing students into your program. Current programs have mobilized their partners in many ways:
At Yale, high school teachers, librarians, and counselors are asked to formally nominate students for the program. Students may also apply directly, but most students only submit applications after receiving an email and letter congratulating them on their nomination. At Ursinus, Paul Stern’s recruitment partners not only helped him develop the application, but also read through applications and helped him select students. Last year Columbia finally made contact at one area high school after a recruitment partner sent an email introduction to the guidance counselor. Although the principal of the school had never replied to one of Jessica Lee’s emails, the guidance counselor was so enthusiastic that he bought pizza to entice interested students to attend Jessica’s presentation. He then helped students compile and submit their applications and now 10 of his students are participants.
How can your recruitment partner help you bring students into your program?
- Can they invite you to present the program to other teachers and students?
- Can they reach out to strong candidates and encourage those individuals to apply?
- Will they help students compile and submit their applications?
- Will they communicate with hesitant parents?