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Recruitment Practices Show Us Our Priorities

by Karina Salazar
May 14, 2019

This interview with Karina Salazar, a doctoral candidate in the Center for The Study of Higher Education in the College of Education at The University of Arizona, was conducted and condensed by franknews. Her research interests focus on investigating whether the enrollment management practices of public universities undermine access for underserved student populations. 

Karina is one of the principal investigators on a project that analyzes off-campus recruiting visits by colleges and universities. Project reports and data can be found at

Karina: Ozan [Jaquette] and I started this work when I was a first year PHD student, he was my advisor. The topic of the investigation of off campus recruiting happened organically in our conversations regarding our stories about how we went to college. We compared our stories and realized we had very different ones. I’m a local Tucsonan. I live about six miles south of the University of Arizona. I went to high school in one of the poorest and predominantly Mexican-American communities in the city. I was a really good student. I had above a 4.0 GPA. I had taken every honors and AP class that my high school offered, and I did well on my entrance exams. Despite all of this I never received any brochures, any emails – I never saw any recruiters on my high school campus. It was just luck that I somehow ended up attending my flagship university as a first generation student. I didn't quite understand the admission process. I didn't understand the application process. It just happened, luckily for me.

I remember community colleges would come to my high school, and I remember military recruiters, but I don't remember any universities actually being there.

Versus Ozan, as he explained – was this average student that grew up in a wealthy suburb of Boston. He was shocked at how many universities reached out to him via email or brochure – he had large college recruiting fairs at his high school, and all these universities expressed interest in him attending. And he couldn't figure out why that was.

Once we compared stories, we realized there were a lot of differences in the way we grew up and the way we were recruited or not recruited to attend college. We started questioning whether our stories were anomalies or if there was something going on systemically in regards to the recruiting practices of universities. So, we started investigating the recruiting practices of universities.

What schools and communities universities visit to recruit potential prospective students as an indicator of their enrollment priorities.

We started thinking about this in terms of how policy discourse on college access is informed by scholarship that largely places the onus on students, on K-12 schools, on families – rather than analyzing the behavior of the universities that enroll these students. We started questioning the enrollment priorities of universities as a way of addressing college access.

What did you find the top priorities of these universities to be?

We started off by thinking about one intervention. Universities are using different types of interventions and methods to recruit potential students or to identify prospective students. Our first study is focusing on off campus recruiting visits. Looking at off campus recruiting visits, we see that universities tend to visit more out of state high schools and communities than schools and communities within their states. And universities tend to focus their visits on highly affluent schools and communities that also happen to be predominantly white.

Is that because their priority is in finding students who don’t need financial aid?

Yes. I think universities are recruiting wealthy students that can pay full tuition with little or perhaps no financial aid. We do control for other factors to the extent that the data is available. When we're looking at – what is the probability of a high school receiving a visit – we control for factors like distance away from the university. They might also be looking for students that are able to gain admission to the university, so we control for the academic achievement of a school. But we find that income biases persist even after controlling for these factors.

Given the landscape of public higher education, with the dramatic decreases in state appropriation, it's very likely that universities are chasing students that can pay full tuition to the university.

What’s become your primary goal for this research?

We really started this project with the goal of transforming policy debates at all levels about the causes and solutions to inequality and college access. Explanations for the racial and socioeconomic inequality to college access places the onus on students and K-12 schools, and they highlight explanations like achievement gaps. They say low income students and students of color are just not achieving at the level of white upper income students. They talk about undermatching. Students who attend under resourced K-12 schools don't have the resources to apply to the most selective colleges.

All of this assumes that the problem and the solution to access inequality is changing the behavior of students. Our goal was to transform this policy debate to analyze and change the behavior of the universities that enroll these students.

A lot of the discourse and debate makes the assumption that increasing the number of low income students and students of color that apply to university would equally increase their enrollment. And to the extent that the enrollment priorities of universities are biased against low income students and students of color, then increasing the number of applicants to the university wouldn't necessarily increase their enrollment. The goal is to shed light on the behavior of universities and open the conversation about what's really happening on all levels.

The question really becomes, how do we change the enrollment priorities of universities? This is a really complex question that in some ways has a lot to do with the decline in state appropriations to public universities. This decline has shifted the public good mission of these universities, which causes them to pursue the revenue lost from state appropriation in other ways. One of these ways is in increasing the number of non-resident students enrolled that can pay full tuition, and recruiting students that can essentially pay full tuition as well.

What do you think this debate should look like?

Again – at the national level we are always talking about how do we change the behavior of students as a solution to access inequality. I would certainly like to see at a national level a conversation focused on how do we change the behavior of universities?

At the state level, I think that's an interesting question. There is more nuance there. We've been asked by several different folks, what would the right amount of recruiting within a state be? Or, how much of the enrollment at public research universities should be targeted to providing a spot for in-state students? At a state level, this gets complex. Each state is different, each state has different systems for higher education that serve different purposes. It becomes a little bit more nuanced in terms of the needs of each state. Our research so far has focused on public universities. Public universities have a very unique mission in serving state residents. I don't think anyone would deny that colleges and universities at a state level have a responsibility to provide equal opportunity and access to higher education to state residents. So the debate is then on the interpretation of this principle and this commitment in practice.

What would you ask candidates?

Several candidates have expressed different strategies and plans in terms of higher education, some of which are very ambitious. A lot of them focus on making college more affordable and on alleviating some of the debt students take on. Over the last 10-20 years, the financial landscape of higher education has changed to placing the burden of financing higher education on students. A lot of solutions are focusing on how do we alleviate some of this burden off of students. I don't necessarily think that a lot of it is thinking at a broader level –how this burden has come to be placed on students.

The conversation is happening around the federal financial aid process without thinking about what's happening at the state level too, especially for public universities.

Public universities are educating the critical mass of low income students and students of color.

Often it's these students that are in most need of financial assistance to pay for higher education and it’s these institutions that are the most underfunded. The conversation should be asking about what's happening at the state level in terms of the disinvestment that states have made, and how that has driven universities to pursue non-resident students and students that pay full tuition. What does that mean for students who can't pay?

In regards to free college initiatives we also need to be asking questions about how to support institutions in providing these students with a quality education. The discourse is often focused around making college free without talking about how the institutions that would serve the most marginalized students are already underfunded. Increasing the number of students at these institutions without any changes in the resources these colleges and universities have would only perpetuate inequitable educational attainment and returns to a college education. Making college free for students while colleges and universities don’t have adequate resources to provide a quality education for these students is not a solution.

Have you spent time looking at why these became the priorities of universities, when that happened?

We haven't empirically tested when or why this has happened. As researchers we use theories and frameworks to try to understand why this is happening to frame our work in certain perspectives. Universities have historically relied on resources from the federal government to conduct research that serves society. And have also relied on money that's provided from the state to educate in-state students.

When these resources decline, universities have to make up that revenue, which has pushed them to engage in market like activities to generate revenue. These activities and behaviors then lead to treating education as a commodity, which is not in line with the public access mission.

Public universities were historically created to serve their states and to provide upward mobility for low income students and students of color. When universities engage in market like activities, the public good mission is put on the back burner.

Do you look at private institutions as well?

We have collected data on the off-campus recruiting methods of private universities. The New York Times piece did have some of the analysis for the private universities, but the report we just released focuses on public research universities. The first manuscript for the project also focuses on public research universities.

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Everything we’ve mentioned has a direct affect on the admission process, do you think it would affect the outcome and experience of the student once they’re enrolled?

I do think this translates into the college experience. While our research tends to focus on the very beginning of the college process, we often don't, at least on our part, talk about the college experience. I feel that in some ways when universities recruit and enroll non-resident students that are highly affluent, that are coming from other states, that does change the college experience and the college culture on campus.

Personally, I did experience that feeling of "not belonging" in the admissions process translate into the college experience. I went to college and there were very few students working 30 to 40 hours a week like I was. There were very few students commuting to campus everyday. A lot of them were staying in the residence halls. They were going to all these events on campus that I wasn't. As a first generation student on scholarship I was taking college very seriously, knowing that any sort of wrong move – if I were to fail a class, then this opportunity would slip through my fingers.

This does translate in terms of what is the culture of the university, especially at public research universities. I lived six miles south of my university and I felt like I often crossed a divide between two very different worlds.

The more people we talk to who have ended up becoming activists or researchers or academics and focus on this, a lot of them have a similar experience. The sense of not belonging can be traumatizing and isolating. To feel that separate from your peers is really unfortunate and unnecessarily difficult, at a place and time when you're supposed to integrate with your peers and learn from each other.

What do you think would have made your experience feel safer, easier, better, more efficient? In practical terms what did you need that you didn’t have?

That's a great question. We pull on some research by Megan Holland, who's at the University of Buffalo. She did an ethnographic study of recruiting practices by universities from the high school perspective with students going through the college application process. She found that oftentimes low income students, first generation students, students of color – are persuaded to attend a university via these off-campus recruiting visits because the universities make them feel wanted. When a recruiter is visiting your high school, is encouraging you to apply, and is guiding you through this process – and makes you feel like you belong there, students are more likely to attend these universities than those that didn’t take the time to visit.

That really struck a chord with me. I was thinking about my 18-year-old self going through the college application process. That would have certainly made me feel like I didn't just get there out of luck. Having a personal connection with someone from a college or university, someone telling you that you would be an asset to the university and they hope that you apply, and would have really changed the way I experienced the college admissions process.