Rethinking the 'Ideal' Student
College recruiting today can seem a bit like shopping for that perfect diamond. Institutions are competing against one another to enroll those select few "student gems": top academic achievers with high test scores from wealthy families. Like diamonds, candidates should be evaluated not only on their "quality" but what diversity each brings to the overall composition of the student body. It's this latter measure, diversity, that I'd like to discuss.
Every institution strives for diversity within its student body. Ethnicity, gender, cultural and academic interests are often the most common lenses used, and rightly so. Given the intense competition for students, however, it is valuable to expand our definition of diversity, as the "ideal student" can be found in unexpected places.
In a podcast with EdTech Times, Timothy Tracy, former provost and chief academic officer of the University of Kentucky, describes a "hollowing out of the middle", where recruitment efforts today are focusing primarily on students from both the high and low ends of the socioeconomic spectrum in order to achieve institutional goals. It's within this "middle" that an opportunity exists.
This "middle" may lack typical "quality" indicators, but it includes traits such as grit, determination, interests and experiences, which can't necessarily be measured on a standard scale. These students may have the greatest potential to grow from good to great, given the chance. They may also:
- Come from middle-income families
- Have average standardized test scores
- Live in rural areas or less densely populated regions
- Be first-generation students
- Be military veterans
While these individuals may not fit within the traditional "ideal student" mold, they have a lot to contribute to the diversity of an institution (and the community at large) in the form of life experiences, world views, unique perspectives, and work ethic.
"The 'ideal student' may be found in unexpected places."
This brings us back to the fundamental question, "Whom does the institution serve?" Incorporating this often-overlooked population of students into a campus community can improve retention rates and, student satisfaction, and launch these "hidden student gems" on new career paths. It may, however, also require strategic institutional changes such as shifting institutional aid from merit-based scholarships to attract top academic achievers to a need-based approach to support student success, and enhancing or expanding programmatic offerings to better match employment opportunities in local communities.
The great news is that student enrollment doesn't have to be limited by today's definition of "quality." Diversity can come in many forms, and this "middle" may just offer the enrollment gold that universities will need to thrive in an environment of increasing competition for students.