Offering Virtual Application to Support Underserved Students

We learned a lot about operating in virtual environments during the pandemic. But admissions offices and other college departments can carry these lessons from digital interactions forward with initiatives that will help all potential applicants—especially those from low-income high schools, first-generation college students, or non-traditional students. Retaining healthy enrollment numbers for higher education institutions depends on improving how we recruit talented but underserved communities. Expanding our communication and application channels to include digital application assistance is one way to support this.

The Paucity of High School Counselors

A report by The Education Trust found that 27 states have inadequate numbers of high school counselors in schools with high numbers of low-income or students of color. Unfortunately, these high school students are precisely the ones who may need the most help in navigating the college application process, as they are less likely to have family or community members who can help guide them through the process.

Several nonprofits are trying to help these underserved students with their college applications. For example, CollegePoint and College Advising Corps, both backed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, have virtual and other support geared to underserved college-bound students. In addition, some states like New York have stepped in with virtual events or advising to help their residents access help and information on college applications. But no matter how many prospective students these services reach, more can be done to help students more easily and successfully apply to college.

Admissions Departments Are That Last Mile

Just like the hold-up in supply chains is often that last mile to delivery, your school’s admissions department is that final step before a student enrolls. If they can make it to you, then your efforts to make that last push to get all the questions answered, offer assistance with forms and essays, and advise on what programs and financial aid may work for the individual will go a long way towards closing the gap. Virtual application events, individual advising, connections to writing assistance and financial aid counseling, and on-demand help can be the services that tip a student to making it into the enrollment pipeline for your institution.

Non-Tradition Students Need Services

When you consider reaching non-traditional students, who are mostly adults with jobs and families, the regular school counseling services are not usually accessible to them. These prospects often research programs on their own and have fewer “traditional” venues to receive college counseling. In addition, there may be financial aid resources, credit for experience programs, and transfer credit questions that will encourage them to enroll. Therefore, it behooves higher education institutions to beef up counseling services to answer questions and direct applicants to resources to make college more affordable and accessible. Because of their busy lives, this population of applicants is more likely to be able to access help from the admissions department if it is virtual, online, and available after business hours.

Time and Travel Crunches for Prospective Students

While adult students may be particularly short on time, even traditional high school students are very busy these days. In addition, the access to transportation to come to campus for help with their applications may be difficult for low-income students. This is where virtual advising and assistance for applicants can be crucial, offering that extra bit of support to students who may not have good support to get their applications in on time correctly, and to your particular institution. The admissions staff is uniquely positioned to help students apply to your school. They have a detailed understanding of the process, the standards, the offerings, the departments, and the connections to financial aid that can make it a smoother journey for underserved students to make it all the way through to enrolling.


We have all gotten used to conducting many of our admissions and recruitment activities online, and it is great to be back in person for many of them. But we can expand the online services we established during the pandemic to help us better serve students who can’t travel to campus, who don’t have access to high school guidance counselors, and who need that extra bit of help to navigate the confusing process of applying to college. While it is true that all students can benefit from virtual services, non-traditional, low-income, and students of color can significantly be helped by this. Getting every student enrolled is our mission, and continuing virtual application support is one powerful way to keep that happening for underserved students.

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