12/13/2019 by Lawrence Alexander |

Interrupting Implicit Bias in the Admissions Process

by Lawrence Alexander, CS&A Search Consultant for the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Practice

Lawrence Alexander

This is a piece from CS&A's winter focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools. Read more from this series here.

Join us at FORUM/Diversity, a two-day combined faculty recruitment and DEI professional development event on January 31 and February 1 in Philadelphia.

In higher education, business as usual is highly unusual.

The business of college admissions has a history in the United States that is nearly 400 years old. The founding of the majority of our country’s institutions of higher education precedes the emancipation of enslaved people, the desegregation of schools, and the inception of Pell Grants and other financial-aid programs. From a socio-historical perspective, this would mean that most American colleges and universities were not founded to grant access to all Americans. Women and people of color are two principal constituencies that traditional American higher education left out in the cold.

After nearly 400 years, one would think that our profession has substantially distanced itself from its inaccessible and unwelcoming past. Yet, while many colleges and universities around the country say they welcome students from diverse backgrounds and pride themselves on their stated commitment to equity and inclusion, there are only a few admissions offices that have been brave enough to put their money where their mission is.

A 2018 report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce confirms the problem when it comes to college admissions and race. As of last year, only 7% of black freshmen and 12% of Latinx freshmen attended selective public colleges, despite making up 15% and 21% of the college-age population respectively. Meanwhile, white students hold almost two-thirds of the seats in selective colleges even though they make up barely half of the nation’s college-age population. Graduation rates in these institutions also favor white students.

Other reports in recent years support this essential point. In our top colleges and universities — both public and private — our admissions process is highly biased. Being wealthy helps a great deal, too.

The question, then, is why aren’t more of our leading colleges and universities stepping up to fix it?

Getting the Work Done

From May to September of this year, I conducted implicit bias training with the enrollment management teams at Brown University, Boston University, Clark University, Connecticut College, Texas Christian University, and Southern New Hampshire University to address this issue. By the end of the year, I’ll also have had the pleasure of working with the enrollment teams at Brandeis University, Middlebury College, Olin College, and Washington University in St. Louis.

I have learned so much from my time with these teams. Here, I want to share a few key takeaways that I believe are helpful for all college admissions offices that are considering making a deeper investment in inspecting their current practices for systemic and implicit bias as they work toward true equity and authentic inclusion.

1. Center the prospective student’s experience in the evaluation of your enrollment process. Too many admissions teams are asking their colleagues for insight and feedback about admitted students when they should be asking prospective students and their families about their experiences in the enrollment process. How do students first encounter your institution? Online? At a college fair? During a school visit? Are they able to easily access your school? When we center the prospective student’s experiences, we start to ask ourselves the hard — and clarifying — questions. How do students see themselves in our digital space? Do they see students who look like them in our online environments? When they come for tours, do they see those same students on campus? Are those same students from the brochures as happy and enfranchised in person as they appear to be in the publications? Who a student sees through your communications and publications determines how they see themselves on your campus. This conversation about communications is not the responsibility of the marketing team alone; it’s the responsibility of every member of the enrollment management team, both online and on the grocery line.

2. Strive for continuity of purpose and quality engagement. One of the requirements I make of the enrollment teams I train is that I speak to everyone involved in enrollment management: admissions counselors, financial-aid counselors, operations staff, tour guides, and the communications team. The various components of enrollment work are too often siloed from each other and, as a consequence, disjointed. A student can meet a phenomenal admissions counselor at his or her school or at a college fair, but if the continuity of care is lacking when the student calls into the admissions office, visits campus, or applies for financial aid, we can miss out on the best and the brightest. A lack of continuity communicates a lack of care. When I train enrollment management teams, we focus on quality engagement in all three phases of the process: communications, recruitment, and transition. A successful team plans for and executes all three phases well.

3. Have the wisdom and courage to confront bias. Most enrollment management teams can’t interrupt implicit bias in their process because they won’t admit that their process is inherently biased. You can’t interrupt what you won’t confront. Teams that have worked with me have had the courage to acknowledge that they’ve inherited a historically biased process and are willing to do their level best to ensure that all students and families, especially those who have been historically disenfranchised, experience the most equitable process possible. I applaud them for their courage and for their commitment. I also know that there are a number of other enrollment management teams looking to join us in this work. Courage isn’t a matter of skill; it’s a matter of will. When it comes to racial diversity on college campuses, the schools that have the greatest success are those that have the courage to admit their faults, roll up their sleeves, and change their cultures. As a person of color, I often use a mnemonic to make this point as clear as possible: We’re here, when you’re there.

Courage in Action

Speaking of courage, I want to applaud and thank the outstanding folks I have had the opportunity to work with over the past several months and hope their stories inspire other admissions offices to embark on their own journey to greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. In particular, I want to thank the following for sharing their journeys with the greater education communiy:

“Like other colleges, TCU has taken renewed interest in DEI issues over the past three years. Personally, this has always been a calling. Our office is constantly looking for ways to sharpen our toolkit with respect to DEI. It is why we created an access initiatives team in our office when we restructured our organization last year.

Lawrence was careful to tailor his activities and remarks during the training to the needs we presented him, and it was clear this wasn’t a cookie-cutter approach. I learned so much from our time together, but one thing that stood out is the difference between whiteness and white people. I was certainly familiar with this concept, but the way Lawrence presented it made it understandable in a way that I can now take to others. The team was abuzz in the aftermath of Lawrence’s visit, excited to put into action what we learned.”

— Heath Einstein, Dean of Admission at Texas Christian University

“Discomfort when speaking about diversity of any kind, outsourcing all decisions and conversations on diversity and inclusion to our Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, and the language used during the application reading process (not using a student’s preferred pronouns, making assumptions about student’s identity based on perceived race, etc.) were all things that prompted us to begin the process of implicit bias training. In the past, we diverted such conversations to leaders of color and asked for their input on all issues of DEI. Now I am seeing more of my white counterparts taking accountability and they are beginning to see these conversations as everyone's and not just for those with specific titles or skin tones.

As a sociology major, I spent a lot of time critiquing Conn’s approach to many things related to diversity and I am grateful that we will able to put something into action to address an area of needed growth. Our office is thinking about IB/DEI and questioning more than ever before, and I am excited to see us embracing conversations related to diversity and inclusion.”

— Denise Perez, Assistant Director of Admissions at Connecticut College

“The Brown Office of Admission has had ongoing conversations about how implicit bias influences our work. However, we had not embarked on any formal training beyond a brief introduction. After polling staff, it was clear that our colleagues were seeking guidance and feedback.

The training day with Lawrence was broken up into two major sections. First, we worked as a full group to break down the concepts of bias as well as reflections of what we do or don’t do to address the needs of students of color in our process. The second half of the day was a chance to break out in groups to workshop ideas of things we can do to improve our processes. What really stood out was Lawrence’s ability to introduce concepts, but then also push us to create ideas that can bring tangible changes to the work we do.

The office is energized by the discussions and brainstorming and would be interested in continuing this type of work in the near future.”

— Emily Cox, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Brown University

Lawrence Alexander is the leader of Carney, Sandoe & Associates’ Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Consulting Practice, as well as CS&A’s own Director of DEI. He can be reached at lawrence.alexander@carneysandoe.com.

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