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When it comes to high schools that consistently feed students to Northwestern, New Trier Township High School is king. Located in Winnetka, Ill., one of the wealthiest suburbs in America, the school regularly sends 20 to 30 students to NU every year. Its historical relationship with the University is multifaceted, from the children of NU faculty who attend New Trier to the NU alumni who teach there.
Thirty miles south is Englewood, one of Chicago’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Englewood High School closed in June 2008, and only one student in its last graduating class attended a private university. That was Weinberg sophomore Mike Veguilla, the first in his family to attend college.
As admissions deposits continue to trickle in, NU’s class of 2014 looks to be the most socioeconomically and racially diverse in the University’s 160-year history. Hispanic students make up 9 percent of the class so far, the highest ever, and African-American students represent 7 percent, the highest in decades and a sharp contrast from the record-low 4.2 percent of two years ago. NU has also accepted a record number of low-income students, with Pell Grant recipients, QuestBridge Scholars and Pledge Scholars comprising approximately 20 percent of the incoming class.
This new burst of diversity stems largely from NU’s efforts in the past few years to branch outside of its bread-and-butter high school feeders. After NU’s diversity crisis boiled to an outcry two years ago when only 81 black freshmen enrolled in the class of 2012, administration- and student-led initiatives set out to establish relationships with new high school networks, especially among underrepresented Chicago Public Schools. As evidenced by the new admissions numbers, these efforts are starting to pay dividends.
Branching out from the traditional feeders, however, is often easier said than done. The dilemma is the same for most private elite universities: Should admissions offices spend their limited resources solidifying relationships with old friends like New Trier or risk branching out to new high schools like Englewood for the sake of diversity?
“You have to be careful while you’re making new outreach to new schools that at the same time you don’t take for granted the schools that for the last 20 years have given NU a lot of students,” says Michael Mills, NU’s associate provost for university enrollment. “You have to make choices.”
THE CHALLENGES OF BRANCHING OUT
A feeder network is typically a historical relationship between a college and a high school that supplies it with a large number of students every year. Mills defines NU’s feeders as high schools who send 10 or more students to the University in any given year.
Higher education experts have found private universities typically establish their networks in affluent high schools that serve mostly white, upper middle-class students. The top feeders for NU’s class of 2013—New Trier, Adlai Stevenson High School, Illinois Math and Science Academy — certainly fit this profile.
Among NU’s top feeders for the class of 2013, each one was extremely well-endowed with firmly established college counseling programs. They are distinguished by the plethora of college choice resources they provide for their students, the kind of access and information most low-income and first-generation college students do not receive, says Greg Wolniak, an educational research scientist at the University of Chicago.
Access to resources makes all the difference in the college application process, which ranges from college counseling and application tips to parental guidance and peer networks that already exist at a given university.
“There’s kind of a prototypical student that any well-divisioned institution could define for you, and those often will come from the same places decade after decade,” Wolniak says.
Weinberg freshman Stevie Bailey barely had access to any of these resources. A first-generation college student from a small Alabama town, Bailey was one of two people in Cullman High School’s graduating class of 174 students to leave the state after graduation. Her father has owned a gas station in Birmingham, Ala., since he was 19 years old, and her mother recently got a job working at the clothing store T.J. Maxx. Bailey is attending NU on a QuestBridge scholarship, which is part of a national program that helps send high-achieving, low-income students to elite universities. NU joined the QuestBridge program two years ago.
The lack of resources and inadequate college counseling at Cullman made applying to college an overwhelming process for Bailey. She says her counselor never informed her about taking the SAT, for example, so she ended up registering for the last possible test date just one week before the day of the test.
“The hardest part was really the application process,” Bailey says. “I didn’t know what to expect at all, and my mom obviously didn’t know about it. It was daunting not knowing what to look for, not knowing anybody at Northwestern or any alumni when other people here had all these people they knew.”
From a practical standpoint, it’s smart for universities to recruit heavily from the same schools every year, says Mark Engberg, a professor at Loyola University’s School of Higher Education. Based on his research, the stronger the feeder history, the more likely a student from that high school is to enroll, which helps boost matriculation rates.
“It’s more challenging for a university to go to a high school that’s under-resourced and may not have a large contingency of interest,” Engberg says. “A lot of private schools just see a better return on their investment if they tend to these better-off schools in the first place.”
Colleges and universities also have an incentive to ensure students who enroll will succeed when they start taking classes on campus. All of NU’s top feeders offer rigorous curriculums taught by well-qualified teachers, a luxury Mike Veguilla and his former classmates didn’t have at Englewood. He says most of his classmates attended community colleges and didn’t have the test scores to even consider NU. Even though he received the highest ACT score in his grade, Veguilla says he struggled academically his freshman year.
“I was overwhelmed,” Veguilla says. “I wasn’t adequately prepared for how much work it was. At Englewood, I got all A’s because it was ridiculously easy.”
So why branch out when NU’s Office of Admissions can rely on a select handful of high schools for batch after batch of college-ready students? The justification comes from the need for more diversity, a problem that has pushed NU into the national spotlight the past few years.
HOW NU FOUND NEW FEEDERS
After the diversity uproar two years ago, students and administrators collaborated to form the Ambassadors Program, an effort to boost African-American and Latino student enrollment through a variety of student-led initiatives. This marked the launch of the High School Return Program, which was the first time NU’s admissions office flew current NU students from under-resourced high schools back to their high schools to act as a resource for prospective minority students. The admissions office reached out especially to underserved public high schools on Chicago’s South Side through direct mail and phone calls and waived the application fee for all CPS students.
The Ambassadors Program also sought to build ties with new high schools through a counselor fly-in program that invited high school counselors from school districts with more than 50 percent minority representations, says Ambassadors Program Coordinator Bradley Akubuiro.
“This had a huge impact because the majority of counselors who came out had no idea NU had so many academic and financial aid offerings, and applications from these high schools increased by a lot,” says Akubuiro, a Medill junior.
Mills points to the increasing number of Pell Grant recipients and CPS students at NU as signs of improvement. Pell Grants are need-based grants given to low-income undergraduate students, and the incoming freshman class currently has 250 recipients along with 12 QuestBridge Scholars.
Aside from joining the QuestBridge Program, NU has formed new relationships with community-based foundations in Chicago that help underserved students with things like filling out the Common Application or the financial aid application.
“The numbers are small, but they’re growing,” Mills says.
Mills says the main goal now is to build more credibility among minority and low-income families who immediately write off NU as a college choice once they hear of the annual $50,000 sticker price. Word-of-mouth acts as one of the most powerful recruitment tools for the admissions office, Mills says.
“I’ve heard things like, ‘Oh, I can’t look at NU because your tuition and fees are higher than what my family makes in a year,’ but that’s precisely the kind of student who can end up coming here for virtually nothing,” Mills says.
But building new feeder networks is a two-way street. Counselors from underrepresented high schools must also reach out to private universities, and Mills encourages counselors to make connections with their regional representatives in admissions offices. The main obstacle is getting high school counselors to encourage their minority students to aim for elite universities, a barrier that Akubuiro had to overcome as a senior at Minnechaug Regional High School in Massachusetts. Akubuiro was the first student from his high school to ever attend NU.
“When I let my guidance counselor know I was applying to Northwestern, he frankly told me he wasn’t even going to bother writing the recommendation because students where we’re at don’t go to schools like that,” Akubuiro says. “We have a hard time combating that attitude, so a lot of good students who qualify for aid don’t even apply.”
One of NU’s new feeders is Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, a competitive public high school in Chicago. For the classes of 2011 and 2012, Walter Payton sent a total of five students to NU, but last year’s freshman class contained 12 Payton students, making the school one of NU’s top feeders that year.
Communication freshman Veronica Nieves, a Payton alumnus, says the efforts of the Ambassadors Program, especially the campus minority student panel presentation, encourage her to apply to NU.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t believe there was a strong minority base at Northwestern, but when I came to visit, I saw that they did have a good group, and it wasn’t all white people,” Nieves says.
WHY DIVERSE FEEDER NETWORKS MATTER
Educational research shows diversity in the classroom means better learning outcomes for students, but that’s not the only reason why it’s important, Mills says. A diverse college experience can lay the groundwork for lifelong tendencies, such as forming cross-racial friendships or living in integrated neighborhoods. Researchers also point to a college education as an equalizer that helps reduce economic and social stratification in the long run.
Take Medill freshman Julia Haskins. A native of Washington, D.C., Haskins attended the public Woodrow Wilson Senior High School down the street from Sidwell Friends School, where the Obama children go to school. Her school is approximately 70 percent African-American and Hispanic, and almost 40 percent of students receive free- or reduced-lunch benefits. Haskins says Sidwell students labeled Wilson as “ghetto” and “stabby” due to her school’s notorious bomb threats and riots.
“If more colleges reached out to schools like mine, they would get crazy stories and really interesting backgrounds and just a whole world of different people,” Haskins says.
Although NU is taking baby steps to connect with a more diverse range of high schools, Mills says the admissions office can never do enough. But the diversity of next year’s freshman class is reason for optimism, he says.
“We need to keep doing what we’re doing and get better at it, and a lot of it has to do with establishing momentum,” Mills says. “We just have to keep on going after these kids.”
Recruiting from the same feeders and reaching out to new networks does not have to be a black-and-white dichotomy, and maintaining the academic reputation of an elite University is not always antiethical to attracting a diverse range of students. If NU continues its outreach, the University may finally start to see a more representative student body.
“My high school was a lot of brilliant, capable people who just had no outlet for all these possibilities,” Haskins says. “Nobody wants them, or at least that’s how they feel. If colleges could have more open discussion with these schools and not just look over them, they could find some real gems.”