Paving Paths to College with Positive Reinforcement

More than a mindset 

Positivity is a concept we traditionally associate with our mindset. “Keep your chin up.”  “Stay positive!” These words bring feelings of warmth and hope, but when they’re absent, we’re on the opposite end of the spectrum; often battling thoughts of loneliness and self-doubt. Suddenly, positivity is no longer just a mindset. It becomes an influence on how we perceive our value in the world. So, it’s no secret that positivity and motivation have a strong connection that plays out in every aspect of our lives.  

In both early and high school education, motivation is essential. Many educators, counselors and coaches say it’s the key to student success. Early and consistent positive reinforcement can improve academic student outcomes and financial and career-based outcomes. For high school students who have been historically excluded from the college dream, positive reinforcement from all facets of life is critical to college attainment.  

If positive reinforcement is absent in one area of a student’s life, colleges and universities have a unique opportunity to fill the gap. Enrollment teams are trying to find new ways to engage with first-gen, low-income and historically excluded students. We know resources are tight, and competition is rising. And data paints a complicated picture: After the onset of the pandemic, colleges issued nearly 500,000 more acceptances, pushing up admit rates by 4 percentage points while yield went down by 3%. Luckily, there’s a solution, and it is at your fingertips.  

Incorporating positive reinforcement into existing communication strategies and application processes paves a clear, unobstructed path for at-risk students. Here are two techniques top colleges and universities use to support students, which result in higher enrollment and yield rates.   

Build an engagement plan for at-risk students 

Positive reinforcement is highly relevant to the aspiring college student experience, starting as early as 9th grade. Are you attracting and engaging students at this stage? Many enrollment leaders will say no, but those who have adopted and implemented early (think ninth or 10th grade) high school strategies set themselves apart from the pack. Institutions that invest in positive reinforcement do two important jobs. They’re supporting students before they would otherwise begin their college-going path by showing them it’s possible to achieve collegiate success.  

Second, they help students continuously pave their way by supplying academic and financial resources known as obstacles for at-risk students. The University of Dayton, a private institution in Ohio, implemented a highly successful outreach campaign to connect with students with high financial need.  

“We know we need to reach students when they start thinking about higher ed, and for many, that’s the moment they enter high school. We needed a creative way to reach these students, and show them, through personalized communication, that Dayton wasn’t out of reach financially.” - Cody McMillen, Director of Recruitment and Admission for Transfer and Strategic Partnership Programs at the University of Dayton 

Their student-first philosophy built on key components of positive reinforcement brought a new wave of incoming students to campus. Their incoming class was more diverse, had higher GPAs and retained at higher rates.  

Supporting students with achievement-based awards 

A second, proven strategy built on positive reinforcement is leveraging achievement-based scholarships. Research shows the #1 reason students don’t pursue college is due to financial concerns with six out of 10 students eliminating colleges based on cost.  

This has consequences for both students and institutions. Students who don’t experience positive reinforcement (and don’t learn about the value of a college education—or its accessibility) may abandon their degree or decide not to enroll. For today’s colleges and universities, student decisions have a ripple effect on enrollment, retention and graduation rates. Finding ways to bridge financial gaps early in the college exploration process is critical for the financial health of both students and schools. One proven method to bridge these gaps is through micro-scholarships. These are previews of institutional aid that a student is guaranteed if they apply to, are accepted and enroll at your school. This could be $50 for getting an A on a math test or $500 for getting a job after school. Pairing micro-scholarships with a strong engagement program positively impacts both you and aspiring college students. And we know these tactics are crucial as we grapple with some alarming data on enrollment and yield declines plaguing schools across the country. 70% of institutions saw yield declines after the pandemic. 

Supporting stronger students supports you, too 

By incorporating early, positive reinforcement in enrollment strategies, schools can support students as more than just a number in the funnel. When we show interest in students in high school, we provide them with a connection and a path for collegiate success. Maintaining a status quo of last-minute engagement closes that pathway, which forces them to abandon your school altogether. As we approach the looming enrollment cliff, it is time for enrollment and admissions leaders to explore new, innovative ways to academically and financially prepare today’s high school students.  

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