Five Ways to Foster “Fit” Among Prospective Students

Sense of fit, that elusive quality that leads prospective students to “just know” an institution is right for them, is difficult to purposefully cultivate. Seemingly random moments, like a frisbee toss on the quad or a chance conversation with a student can captivate students and lock in their final choices. Schools often reach for the tangible elements like clubs and activities to illustrate their environments. But relying on these alone is a mistake.

What can data tell us about what fit really is and isn’t, and how it might differ for different kinds of students? Understanding the data can help institutions create possible scenarios for students to experience the kinds of moments that will spark the final matches.

Our analysis of this year’s Admitted Student Research, Eduventures’ annual study of admitted high school seniors, shines a light on fit. We conducted a relative importance analysis of student quality ratings for the institutions they were admitted to (the independent variables) in their ratings of sense of fit with the institutions they were rating (the dependent variable). This gave us a very clear sense of the complex components of fit (see Figure 1), which are shown on a normalized 100-point scale.

 

Relative-Importance-in-Student-Assessment-of-Institutional-FitFigure 1.

 

According to Figure 1, the top three components of fit are: finding groups where I fit in, sense of community on campus, and off campus environment/things to do. The clear takeaway is that institutions must articulate a sense of belonging for students that includes helping them see where they will fit in socially within both the campus and off-campus communities.

In contrast, the opportunity to be involved in clubs and activities, what many campuses might consider the key mechanism for establishing belonging, is least important to students in developing sense of fit. This might seem counterintuitive, but clubs and activities are only one element of a campus social web, and they are a structural element at that.

Students are looking for something deeper than the ability to sign up for one of 400 clubs on campus; they are looking for a place where they will feel accepted and included, perhaps a place where their values and beliefs will be validated by the people around them. Importantly, finding your group is not about finding a club or activity, it’s about finding your people in the broader community. What can you do to elevate your discussion of campus community beyond the mechanistic discussion of clubs and activities?

Many Commonalities, Some Important Differences

What brings all students together is the notion of trying to find a group and sense of community. Having said that, we do see key differences for students in different races and ethnicities (see Figure 2) which we should attend to.

 

Relative Importance in Student Assessment of Institutional Fit by Race-EthnicityFigure 2.

 

Notably, for three of the groups, Asian/Asian-American, Black/African-American, and Latino/Hispanic students, the discussion of campus events and organizations, while not paramount, is a part of the equation for fit. It is not for White/Caucasian and multiracial students. “Seeing students who look like me” has some relevance for all students, but much more so for Black/African-American, multiracial, and Asian/Asian-American students in comparison to White/Caucasian students:

  • Asian/Asian-American students place less importance on seeing students from diverse backgrounds and more on strength of program.
  • Black/African-American students especially seek groups where they fit in, a sense of community, seek diverse classmates, and seek classmates who look like them.
  • Latino/Hispanic students have the strongest focus on the off-campus environment and school spirit.
  • White students, in addition to a strong focus on the core attributes of belonging, are most interested in seeking personal attention from faculty.
  • Multiracial students are less concerned by diversity around them, but they would like to see students like themselves.

The Bottom Line

As you design and refine the ways that you foster feelings of fit among college-bound high school students this year, here are five things to keep in mind:

1. Tell the big story of belonging.

Resist the temptation to immediately talk about the mechanics of your community. Instead, talk about who your students are and what they care about. Help students find their people in terms of values and beliefs, not just activities.

2. Set your institution in a local context.

Give students a rich sense of what their daily lives will be like in your world on and off campus. What are the experiences, large and small, that will create the little joys of living in this place for four years?

3. Show off your students in all their glory.

Students want to see both others and themselves in this future universe. Make sure you let authentic student video illustrate just what your community looks and feels like.

4. Think about the fit story for different types of students.

Consider that some students have different priorities as they examine the communities they are considering for college. In looking at the students you serve, your story of fit might emphasize different elements for different students.

5. Create discovery pathways for students to encounter their fit at your school.

You’ll never be able to artificially create the magic moment, but you can put students on pathways that increase the odds they will experience one. Present virtual visit days or route campus visits in such a way that you increase the odds that students will have their moments and feel that sense of fit lock in place.

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Kim Reid

Eduventures Principal Analyst at Encoura
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