In Practice: Enrollment Through an Equity Lens

Winter 2021

By Barbara Eghan

shutterstock_1390924415-Converted-01-(1).jpgAlmost every independent school faces one irreconcilable barrier that threatens the prospect of true racial diversity and social equity in our communities: the admission process. Simply by virtue of having to apply, families self-select into exploring our schools. We, in turn, conduct another round of selection to identify the right number and balance of mission-appropriate students. At the end of the day, our student body ideally reflects a representative subset of our applicant pool. But does our applicant pool reflect a representative subset of our school’s surrounding community? For the equity-minded enrollment director, this is a fundamental question.
In 2014, I began as director of enrollment management and financial aid at Georgetown Day School (DC) and was drawn to the school’s deep commitment to academic excellence and social justice, outcomes we believe are inextricably intertwined. GDS was founded in 1945 as the first racially and religiously integrated school in Washington, DC, before laws and customs changed to recognize the damaging inequities of “separate but equal” education. Among our founding families were two Black parents, and we are proud of being a school where Black families have an ownership stake in our origin story. I was keen to understand how effectively our admission process was helping us deliver on our founding mission around racial equity for Black students in particular, so I started to look at the data.

Our Approach

In 2014, I started to try to understand race and ethnicity in the GDS applicant pool. One of the first challenges I faced was inconsistent practice around the data collection of racial identity. There wasn’t a specific methodology or place to collect applicants’ self-identified race or ethnicity. There were valid concerns about this—would a family wonder, for instance, if their racial identity would impact the admission decision?—but I also discovered that those reasons concealed an uncomfortable truth: In not asking the question, we were left, at best, with incomplete qualitative data (some families, for example, self-identified their race and ethnicity during their interview). But at worst, we were relying on our own biased and oftentimes faulty interpretations of identity.
We already had robust mechanisms for capturing and reporting race and ethnicity data in our enrolled student body, and it was critical for our admission office to shift toward best practices in the collection of race and ethnicity data among our applicants. We know from our work with students that a critical aspect of identity formation is the space for self-definition, and this must be true for how we understand the families we attract and enroll. When I engaged the admission team around this prerogative, there was a willingness to pilot this practice but also some palpable caution around ensuring that this data would enhance our enrollment diversity, not tokenize or diminish it.

The Process

The first step in our inquiry process was to develop a data-gathering mechanism that would allow us to capture self-reported race and ethnicity information from our applicants. That fall, we added an optional question to the biographical information section of the admission application that provided two ways to indicate race and ethnicity: a drop-down menu with race and ethnicity categories that were aligned with the data we captured about our enrolled students and a text-entry box in which families could optionally provide further detail about their background.
From the data we gathered during the application process, we could then examine our applicant pool demographics at three critical phases in the enrollment funnel: the application stage; the notification stage, when schools communicate their decision with families; and the matriculation stage, when families commit to enrolling at the school.
When examining the data throughout our admission funnel, we were looking for proportional representation of each race and ethnicity category in each stage of our enrollment funnel. For example, if 30% of our applicants were Black, then in theory, at least that percentage of Black students should be represented among our admitted and matriculating students.
Furthermore, if we observed a selective admission rate of, say, 35% and an overall yield of 60%, would we see similar percentages among all racial constituency groups? Using this lens, any data disparities in admission and yield rates would reveal where certain constituencies may be over- or underrepresented in our process.
In 2016, we upgraded our data analysis mechanisms by migrating to an online admission database called Ravenna, which offers real-time insights into regional aggregated data from other independent schools, allowing us to compare our school-specific data with regional trends. Overall, we found we were faring no worse than other schools in attracting a broadly talented and diverse applicant pool, but not all that significantly better—particularly among Black applicants. This insight challenged many of our assumptions about how racial equity manifested in our admission and enrollment process.
In continuing to track and analyze data year over year since 2014, we have been able to take strategic action at each stage of the admission funnel, and we have meaningfully enhanced the representational diversity at each critical stage of the mutual selection process. Students of color now represent 60% of our applicant pool, up from 40% six years ago. They account for 55% of our newly enrolled students for 2020–2021, up from 40% in that same period.

The Bigger Picture

Merely looking at the data is not enough. In asking questions, sometimes uncomfortable ones, we are pushed to explain our root causes, challenge our assumptions, and make connections across silos that might help us address our challenges. In our case, having robust data around race and ethnicity and reporting it to our trustees led us to name some vital strategic initiatives to support engagement and access for our Black families.
One such initiative was a partnership led by our office of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which hosted a dinner and discussion event with two professors whose work centers on the thriving of Black boys and girls in predominantly white institutions. The audience was packed beyond capacity: Not only was this a salient topic for many of our own Black families, but it also proved to be a critical way to engage our Black applicants, who accounted for almost a quarter of the event’s attendees.
We also identified the need to engage more intentionally with Black alumni, particularly since our admission data showed that they were not proportionally represented among our legacy applicants. In the hiring process for a new director of alumni engagement earlier this year, outreach with Black alumni was a named priority that now informs a strategic plan focused on broadening engagement and philanthropy from this crucial constituency in our community.
For each of these critical initiatives, the data that drew our attention and drove our approach originated in the admission process. In our own office, a deep level of data analysis helped inform strategic decisions we made to pursue wider outreach, deeper partnerships with community-based organizations, and greater intentionality in our selection and yield efforts.

Sustaining Our Schools

Diving deep into our admission and enrollment data helped us gauge how fully we are advancing our mission and see that we need to take a comprehensive approach to sustaining a richly diverse student body. It is not enough to tout endgame statistics, such as the representation of students of color in our applicant pool or among our enrolled students—representation is perhaps the most obvious measure of progress toward diversity, but it is not the only metric we should consider.
It was once the case that the admission process at independent schools was perceived as a gate-keeping function to filter through an adequate number of qualified (and mostly tuition-paying) applicants. The Great Recession changed the economic fundamentals significantly, and since then seismic demographic, economic, generational, and educational shifts are evolving the composition of our schools. Rather than filtering students out, our admission practices must now draw in prospective students as we cultivate the vital diversity that will sustain our schools. The difference between success and failure in this endeavor brings us to an existential moment for independent schools. There is much work for us to do, and data gives us a foundational place to start.
Particularly amid the national reckoning around race in this moment, it is important to acknowledge the rarified space independent schools have traditionally occupied in the United States. The historical context in which many independent schools were founded was to provide a prestigious education to the elite, and the mutual selection process structurally excluded many people who were not already among the most privileged and affluent, particularly those who were nonwhite and nonmale. But in the current context of an ever more diverse nation and world, we now understand the crucial links between diverse perspectives and positive outcomes—from the classroom to the boardroom—and this knowledge has sharpened the vital role our schools must play in preparing students to be constructive leaders in a dynamic present and future.

The Takeaways 

For the enrollment director wondering where to start mining the data that can advance diversity and equity work in their school, an enrollment equity framework focused on three areas may help.
Outreach. In what strategic and active ways are you cultivating diversity in your applicant pool that represents the community you serve? One reality of the changing demographics of the country is that “nontraditional” applicants, including students of color, are becoming much more, well, traditional as applicants. Targeted outreach centered on bringing the right mix of families to your school should be a primary goal.
Representation. To what extent are various racial constituencies proportionally represented in critical stages of the admissions process? Both school-specific and regional benchmarks are helpful to understand your enrollment priorities.
Yield. At the end of the day, having the most diverse applicant pool in the world will mean nothing if students of color do not actually enroll at your school. Tracking yield data by race/ethnicity can highlight where barriers, systemic or otherwise, may exist for some applicants and what the admissions team and others at the school need to do to correct for those barriers and ensure equity of access.
Barbara Eghan

Barbara Eghan is director of enrollment management and financial aid at Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC.