For a large number of teenagers, the possibility of earning a college degree still seems out of reach due to lack of adequate financial resources, guidance, and support. Each year, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 34.1 percent of high school graduates fail to enroll in college. Many colleges and universities are ramping up their efforts to target students in traditionally underserved communities, particularly following last year’s College Opportunity Summit hosted by the White House.

At that summit, more than 100 higher education nonprofit and college administrative leaders pledged to increase their outreach efforts to low-income students, accept more low-income students, and implement strategies to ensure that a higher percentage of low-income students graduate. At the event, First Lady Michelle Obama said: “It is our mission…to take real, meaningful action that will help our young people get into college and, more importantly, actually get their degree.”

Addressing issues

This message seems to be resonating among institutions of all sizes, which are more focused than ever on addressing these issues and are taking steps that include:

  • Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the University of Virginia, for example, are working collaboratively to have staff members visit and meet with students in low-income, rural areas from where these universities have traditionally received lower numbers of applicants. They provide the students with information, support, and motivation to apply.
  • A growing number of colleges are providing training and resources to local high school counselors, who often are the only college planning resources for these students, particularly if they’re first-generation college applicants.
  • Colleges also are engaging current students to reach out to high school students and serve as their mentors. They’re providing events in their hometowns to help prospective students feel more comfortable and find common ground with current students with similar backgrounds. These events also help illustrate the point that attending college for first-generation, low-income students is an attainable possibility.
  • Schools are also using digital marketing in new ways. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that a majority of low-income, high-achieving students don’t apply to top-tier colleges despite the fact that they could easily qualify for large financial aid packages. Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale are proactively using social media to spread the word about programs they offer, such as waiving tuition fees for families earning less than $65,000 per year.
  • Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, and other schools are also offering virtual guided walking tours provided by tech company YouVisit that enable prospective students to explore college campuses from the comfort of their own homes—almost as if they were physically walking on campus—without having to incur travel expenses that would otherwise have prevented them from considering those schools. These schools are reporting that the virtual guided walking tours are increasing access, inquiries, and enrollment from students throughout the country and worldwide.


Clearly, many schools have begun taking more steps in the right direction to address these issues. But why go through all this trouble? The benefits, experts say, go beyond the four years that students are in school.

According to Julia B. Isaacs, Isabel Sawhill, and Ron Haskins, authors of Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America, “Without a college degree, children born in the bottom-fifth of the income distribution have a 5 percent chance of making it to the top fifth, and a 55 percent chance of making out of the bottom fifth. With a college degree, the chances of making it to the top increase to 19 percent, and chances of making it out of the bottom increase to 84 percent.” Clearly, those are statistics worth acting on.

There’s no doubt that, historically, many colleges and universities have had programs in place to serve these students but have simply not allocated enough time and resources on marketing and outreach programs to ensure that students were aware and could access them. Time has shown that it’s critical to do more than offer programs—it’s also about promoting them and proactively reaching out to underserved communities to light a fire in the hearts and minds of students and their families.

The ramped-up efforts from colleges and universities are all steps in the right direction and, particularly as more colleges adopt new digital technologies that provide greater outreach and interactivity between colleges and prospective students, we will be able to see more students from traditionally underserved communities attending and graduating college.

Abi Mandelbaum is co-founder and CEO of YouVisit, a global leader in creating virtual tours and virtual reality experiences for a variety of industries, including hospitality, real estate, travel, events, education, factories, and more.

Reprinted from “Outreach to Students from Underserved Communities” in Academic Leader 29.7(2015)4 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.