Independent schools have long relied on community-based organizations to help them identify talented youth from families not familiar with or unable to afford independent day and boarding schools. Christina Almeida, program coordinator at Breakthrough Austin (TX), Bridget Johnson, associate executive director at Prep for Prep (NY), and Garth Adams, program dean at Hartford Youth Scholars (CT), share their perspectives on a changing enrollment and access landscape.
Are you seeing any changes in terms of the independent school community’s commitment to access or changes to the admission process?
CA: The commitment to access grows every year. The big change is that the independent school application process now occurs primarily online, and applicants must have access to and familiarity with technological platforms. Our partner schools understand that there are great advantages to this but also great challenges for our students. It takes training, sharing information, and allowing for flexibility. Our partner schools have been consistent with communication regarding updates, receipt of materials, applying for financial aid, or simply gathering information. This reassures us that each applicant is seriously considered and that commitment to the student’s success is of the utmost importance.
BJ: We are not seeing a difference in commitment to access; however, schools are now savvier in how they approach the recruitment process. In the past, schools relied heavily on access programs such as Prep for Prep as their main sources of diversity recruitment, and at that time recruitment was more heavily focused on Black and Latino students. Now, schools have a number of different methods of attracting students: they hire admission officers with a diversity focus, alumni and current families help spread the word, and their strategies may include global outreach. Parents today are also more sophisticated about the educational landscape and know that public school is no longer the only option. These factors have created a marketplace that allows schools to be more selective. Schools with larger budgets can target, enroll, and support a more diverse student body. Schools with fewer resources do not have as much flexibility and may often find themselves in a position where they want to admit the students but cannot afford to, and instead place them on a financial aid waiting list.
GA: We see more independent school admission offices with full-time diversity recruitment officers, which certainly helps create closer, more collaborative working relationships with Hartford Youth Scholars and its students. Having specific points of contact whose goals typically align with ours— namely, the expansion of educational access for traditionally underserved and underrepresented groups—lets the school better understand our students and our organization. Some schools are beginning to take a more active approach, and we are now seeing at HYS the occasional in-person visit from school admission officers. With regards to financial aid, many New England schools are working to supplement aid awards by including non-tuition expenses such as books, computers, health services, laundry fees, travel abroad opportunities, and summer programs. These added costs of attendance can often be an additional strain for low-income families.
What factors are most important in considering schools for your students?
CA: Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, and with that comes more school options for families. Breakthrough Austin partners with schools that strive to provide a welcoming environment to students and families of various backgrounds. Our partner schools have different, yet effective, approaches to welcoming new families and are highly successful in transitioning students who come from public schools. In addition, we find that ongoing support and communication throughout the school year is particularly important. This includes communication regarding students’ academic progress but also their social-emotional well-being. Support with transportation is also a priority, because it is a common challenge for families. Our partner schools offer buses or alternative transportation to families, as well as assistance with other logistics and supplies such as computers or books. Most importantly, our partner schools guarantee financial aid to academically qualified students for all four years of high school.
BJ: Our students consider several factors when deciding which schools to apply to and attend. One of the most important is fit. Students need to feel comfortable at the school and see themselves as a part of the community. They will see a better fit at schools that have classes and extracurriculars that appeal to their interests, and see faculty and staff who look like them. The daily commute is also a significant factor. A student who spends hours traveling to and from the school will have less time for extracurriculars, homework, and bonding time with their classmates. Money is always an important consideration. The school’s tuition and extras—such as activity fees, which are usually not considered during initial calculations—must work within the family’s budget. Finally, students seek a supportive environment. Will the students and parents feel their experiences and questions will be supported by their fellow classmates, faculty, and administration? All of these factors contribute to how students evaluate their school options.
GA: In New England, there are relatively fewer day-only options, which can be daunting for some families. With so many outstanding independent schools within three hours of Hartford, however, we encourage our families to explore all the options and make sure they’re aware of the benefits and opportunities that will come with a boarding school (or day school) education. The overall sense of community that the student and family bear witness to during on-campus interviews and revisit days is also vital. A school that makes its prospective students and families feel more at home and makes clear in demonstrable ways that they value institutional diversity (through programming, speakers, campus discussions, affinity groups, and hiring more faculty and administrators of color) has a better chance at yielding the student. Finally, the financial aid package is a critical factor in the final decision for our families.
What advice would you give admission offices for helping families navigate the process?
CA: For families who haven’t seen an online application portal, easy steps such as registering for the SSAT or requesting letters of recommendation can seem daunting. So personalized emails or phone calls can carry a lot of weight in making the application process accessible to all. Communicating to families that financial aid will be available throughout a student’s high school career will give families reassurance and encouragement to complete the application process. In addition, families will be more inclined to fully commit to the school and do whatever it takes to help their child succeed.
BJ: This process is a huge undertaking for the entire family and some will need more guidance than others. First impressions during the interview and campus visit are also extremely important for both sides—the families are assessing the schools in much the same way the admission officers are evaluating them. Know that the family may have unconventional questions based on their backgrounds and cultures. Admission offices need to see that these students are as smart as anyone else in the applicant pool, but they may not be as polished. They may not have the resume or extracurricular activities that other applicants have, but schools should recognize the accomplishments and leadership roles they still achieve within the circumstances that they come from. Given the opportunity, most students will fully invest themselves in their school community.
GA: Because many of our families are just getting comfortable with the idea of their child living away from home for high school, admission interviewers would be wise to give a clear explanation of not only the unique culture of their school but also the safety, supervision, advising, and added value that comes with the boarding experience. Moreover, the positive influence of having a diversity recruiter or administrator present at some point during the visit to talk about what it’s like to be a student of color on campus cannot be understated. Beyond just percentages and data, schools that can “show” how they support students of color—both socially and academically—once they arrive are bound to make prospective families more comfortable with enrollment.