Siddhi Surana

With a record-breaking number of applications to Yale College this year, Yale is attracting increasingly more students from underrepresented groups thanks to its targeted outreach, which has evolved over time: Beginning with the Yale Student Ambassador Program 10 years ago, these efforts now comprise targeted mailings and school visits, which are informed by recent research and data.

When the ambassador program launched in 2005, Yale did not have comprehensive data on where high-achieving, low-income students lived, according to Director of Outreach and Recruitment Mark Dunn ’07. Funded by a grant from a private donor, the program recruits current Yale students to travel to high schools that enroll a significant number of high-achieving, low-income students and give presentations about Yale. The Admissions Office’s goal was to convince students who, because of perceptions of Yale as a closed-off, predominately white institution, would not have applied to the University otherwise.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan, then serving as director of outreach and recruitment, was one of the pioneers of the program, which has gone from infancy to one of Yale’s most reliable vehicles for outreach in the span of 10 years. The number of high schools visited by ambassadors has gone up from a mere 230 in academic year 2005–06 to 722 in the last academic year. The number of Yale students logging visits has nearly tripled from 130 to 319 in the same period. But most important, applications from targeted schools have increased eight out of the last 10 years, with a 55 percent rise for the class of 2019.

“It really makes a statement for someone who shares your same background to tell you that they were accepted,” said Jesus Caro ’16, a participant in the ambassador program. “High school students have this mental image of what they think a Yale student is, and they tell themselves there’s no way they can compare. So meeting a current student who really wasn’t all that different from you is very important.”

Quinlan and Dunn have worked closely together growing this program since Quinlan became dean of admissions in 2013. Dunn said he came into his position wanting to do targeted outreach to this particular group, and one of his major tasks in this respect was to improve the data available to the Admissions Office. In this way, admissions would be able to communicate efficiently with the exact type of students it sought to recruit.

While student information purchased from the College Board and the ACT provided Yale with information about which students were receiving high test scores, it could not shed light on key additional factors like what their family backgrounds or socioeconomic statuses were.

“We had these names in our system — students that based on one metric would be competitive applicants if they were to apply,” Dunn said. “What we didn’t have was good information about where [low-income] students lived.”

During the 2012–13 academic year, Yale admissions officers received updated information on the number of students at each high school living in an area with a median household income under $60,000. The Admissions Office receives data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which had organized information about socioeconomic status by ZIP code. In this way, the Admissions Office was likely to figure out which students receiving high standardized test scores were likely to be low income.

The following year, this data were further refined by the bureau to include income level by census tract, small areas designed to be homogeneous with respect to population characteristics.

“We went from just having hunchy judgments, to having really good data on which high schools are having good numbers of high-achieving, low-income students,” Dunn said.

Over the past four years, Yale has seen a 36 percent increase in the number of African-Americans applying, as well as an 18 percent increase in applications from members of an ethnic minority and a 12 percent increase from students who are the first in their family to attend college. By contrast, Yale’s total applications from the U.S. have risen 5 percent. Dunn said that while there is no set measure of socioeconomic diversity in a student body, one potential measure is the number of first-generation students enrolled.

In several ways, 2013 was a critical year in college admissions: That spring, economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery published a paper that focused on “The Missing ‘One-Offs’” in college admissions — accomplished students who came from impoverished districts and attended under-resourced high schools. The paper concluded that a significant number of these students existed and that the vast majority fail to apply to any selective college, in spite of the fact that they are typically admitted at higher rates and pay less in tuition than their wealthier counterparts. Because these students are typically not concentrated in a critical mass, the paper argued, admissions officers are unlikely to reach them.

A separate paper by Hoxby and economist Sarah Turner showed that colleges could change these students’ applicant behavior through low-cost interventions that do not require students to be geographically concentrated, such as mailings to a student’s house.

“We took this research and very quickly moved on it,” Dunn said.

Later that year, the Admissions Office rolled out what would be one of their primary modes of outreach to low-income students — a postcard campaign now directed to around 25,000 students each year.

The Admissions Office used the data that it had for the ambassadors program to send postcards to the homes of high-achieving, low-income students during the summer months. These postcards are mailed to students across the country and include information on net cost, demographics of Yale and other information.

“One of the reasons this is so important for us is because there are fewer and fewer economic levelers in society,” Quinlan said. “A college education and, in particular, a Yale education, can be a really powerful opportunity to cross socioeconomic boundaries and it’s important that all institutions of higher education diversify to help support the future of this country.”

Yale’s peer schools have tried other approaches for low-cost interventions: In 2013, Harvard announced that it would be using social media, video and other Web-based communications to connect high school students to the university.

The postcards were one of the products of a series of commitments Yale made to the White House that year as part of a pledge to increase college access for all Americans. Part of these commitments were expanding the postcard campaigns from 16,000 cards per year  as well as the ambassador program to reach more students, but Yale also committed to group travel to speak to as wide an audience as possible. In 2013, Yale admissions officers began traveling with representatives from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia, which had been conducting joint sessions for several years. Yale has also done travel partnerships with Brown and MIT.

Dunn said having a variety of schools presenting at the same time attracts students with a diverse range of interests and is effective at convincing students to apply to Yale who otherwise might not have wanted to. This claim is based on surveys administered to students and parents after the information sessions, through which the Admissions Office found that there were a higher portion of attendees from underrepresented groups.

“Prospective students are really busy,” Dunn said. “If you’re not already leaning toward Yale, you’re probably not going to spend 90 minutes on a weeknight just learning about how awesome Yale is. We realized that traveling in a group can allow us to hit a more diverse group, and to move the needle with students who were not already sold on Yale.”