No Easy Button

For the most part, people are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. As an example, I love to cook. It is an opportunity for me to be creative while learning how the various combinations of spices, proteins, and vegetables either enhance or detract from a fully composed dish. On the other hand, I do not have a green thumb. While I understand the mechanics of farming, chances are, I would likely be unsuccessful growing my own crops. After this admission, it was a big step to take on the responsibility of Paulie, the house plant.

We all have a variety of talents that come easy to us and they span a range of skills needed for daily survival. Some people are great with directions. You can pick them up and place them in an unknown world and they will find their way home including interesting adventures along the way. Again, this is not me. Some feel comfortable being around other people, even those they may not know. They can enter a new environment and strike up conversations while ending the night with several new Facebook friends. This may or may not be me. However, for every strength we identify, there are weaknesses that we struggle to overcome.

Recently, I needed to look my weakness square in the face, take a deep breath, and purchase a new laptop. At first it was exciting, I researched various models, trying to determine which one would best meet my needs and work style. Then followed the dreaded set up. We have all become so reliant on technology that the thought of losing a file I have not opened since 2013 was almost more than I could bear. So, after a few more deep breaths, I decided to look around and see what resources were at my disposal. Slowly, I started transitioning to the new laptop. I was careful to ask questions when there were steps I did not understand and read and re-read instructions to avoid mistakes. While this all sounds planned and without incident, the process was not without stress and a constant feeling of trepidation. If you have ever tackled something that is unfamiliar, you can relate to what I am describing.

Now, imagine that you are a first-generation or even a fifth-generation college student. While one may have more resources available than the other, the same feelings bubble up to the surface when faced with the task of applying to colleges. These students, regardless of age, understand that postsecondary education is necessary to compete in a changing workforce. I knew the same about my old laptop. It was starting to slow down and if I did not take proactive steps to replace it, I would have to address the issue in crisis mode.

Students spend time researching programs and colleges before finally selecting one on paper they think best fits their needs. I had to take this same step of researching a product that while I use, do not fully understand the inner operations and detailed functions. Students feel the same way. They hear repeatedly that college is important and are told all the reasons why, but that does not mean they fully understand how going to college works.

Students choose their college and take the first steps to apply, they are again faced with uncertainty. They question their selection because it is a big investment of their time and financial resources. While the investment level with a new laptop is not the same, it is not without uncertainty. Fortunately, with a laptop, you have the option of purchasing a warranty. Students do not have the luxury of this guarantee. Students rely on admissions personnel, advisors, and other support services to explain the positives and negatives about their choices.

Students receive a pile of paperwork, a pat on the back, and instructions on completing the next steps—all of which could have just as easily been written in Greek for all they understood. Imagine being handed your new laptop box. You clutch it to your chest, as the salesperson turns you around and points you to the door. With a friendly pat on the back, celebratory wave, and “you made a great choice” spoken over your shoulder, you face the front doors of the store knowing that once you leave it is now your responsibility to make sure your laptop is functioning. The word you are looking for is daunting. Students feel overwhelmed with navigating those next steps, the steps that follow making a choice and come before entering the classroom. They have questions. They are unsure and want to avoid any mistakes. At this point, the issue does not have anything to do with how smart a person is, but does have everything to do with understanding the next steps.

We can be quick to criticize why students applied, but never followed through. Or, we question why a seemingly eager student never submitted their first tuition payment. However, we fail to do enough to make sure they understand the little steps that stand between their choice and their dreams. We tend to forget how stressful and confusing it can be for students needing to adapt to a new environment. We think, “well, I had to figure it out and I survived so can they,” but then we bemoan a lack of skilled employees or increasing dropout rates. Student success should not be based on random luck and chance. Student success should be the result of individual ability to learn which can only happen if they know how to navigate the complexity of college admissions and make it to the classroom. It is not a level playing field if not everyone can get there.

We will only grasp the staggering potential of our time if we create onramps that empower all people to participate. ~ Robert Smith

How does your institution make the admissions process easier for all students?