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Equitable Entreaty: Highlight the Help

Equity is not a substitute for equality, contrary to the prevailing use of the term. If anything, equality and equity have a symbiotic and reflexive relationship in that the former informs the latter. In the context of higher education, care for all students (equality) requires the recognition of differences that are subsequently acted upon (equity) in order to ensure the needs of all members of a community are met (equality). In this case, students of color who identify as first-generation and low-income often have unique needs that must be recognized early on in the prospect and enrollment phase in order to serve them best. 

Recently, I co-facilitated a small focus group which consisted of high school students who all identify as students of color and first generation. They also reside in households of modest means. They had a lot to share about navigating the web and social media during the college search process, most of which did not come as a surprise to me since I’m also a first-generation, person of color, whose socioeconomic status was defined as low-income once upon a time. 

As I listened to them, it was apparent that their wants and desires are not that different than other students who are researching their options with intention. The students in this focus group like websites with vibrant colors. They expect cohesion between social media and the web, and want broad opportunities for academic enrichment and social engagement to be accessible from the homepage. They also want to see explicit representations of diversity (race and gender, in particular) on the website. While all prospective students have their eye on some, or all, of these themes, an equitable element emerged that is critical to recognize. In this piece, I am focusing on one of the themes that came up during the session and offering a tangible takeaway for consideration.

Theme: Site design and navigation

Students are drawn to websites that have an aesthetic and welcoming design and feel. Prospective students are drawn to high-quality functioning and updated websites that are up-to-date with fresh and easily found information and graphics.

One student noted specifically that they “just like to see fun websites, and it’s not fun to hop on a website and see monotone things and no pops of color.” Another one stated that they want to see a site that “looks updated and revamped” which suggests they are comparing sites during their search. 

As they talked about the colors and feel of the site, a participant added, “I also look for the opportunities that a college can give me mostly when I look at the top (navigation) bar. If you go down and look at, like research and internships.”  They continued, “being able to see if there are professors, or a lot of people there that are willing to help you get into research positions, or internship positions; just being able to easily look at your opportunities is a great sign that the college is there for you.” 

Another student expanded on that point saying, “Websites that were so easy to discover, like their research opportunities, extracurriculars, like anything that you’re interested in, if it’s easily accessible, you can see yourself at that place. You can see yourself amongst other students and you can see yourself going to that school.”

Equitable Entreaty: Highlight Campus Resources Early

I imagine that any prospective student is looking for these things, but the subtlety that is important to note here is the matter of seeing that someone, or people, will assist them in accessing these opportunities, and to have that information accessible from the navigation bar on the home page. Seeing the link early signals care to this student, and likely, many others who identify similarly.

After the students shared their initial thoughts, I probed for more specifics about what makes a website visually appealing. I asked if there were schools that moved up or down their list based on site design and navigability and a student pointedly declared, “I remember I could not find any information on specific (academic) programs.” She continued, “I had to find that through, like, external work and it just felt like so much work to get to any opportunity on the website, so it felt like it wasn’t worth it for me because I was like, if I have to struggle this much, and I’m not even a student at the school, what’s it like to be a student there?” 

Coming from a student who is enrolled in a program that seeks to empower underserved youth who are looking to be the first in their family to graduate from college, this feedback didn’t come as a surprise. The intentional positioning of visual cues that signal support, and having a link on the home page that navigates to opportunities that are available to them, goes a long way in shaping how a student envisions the experience. Connected students, particularly those who have been historically underrepresented on college campuses, are more likely to be successful. 

Proclamations of equity are great, but they ring hollow unless they are backed by a cohesive strategy that starts with making sure students see how they will be supported when they enroll at your institution.

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