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Understandably, reports indicating that higher education is heading toward a looming enrollment cliff have university administrators nervous.

However, there is no shortage of potential new students if colleges widen their recruitment efforts to focus on traditionally overlooked candidates — including those who might dismiss college due to financial need or academic performance.

In Chicago, only 42 percent of public school graduates enrolled in four-year colleges in 2019. The remaining 58 percent represent an untapped resource for higher education.

If we can help these students reframe their relationship to the process of learning in high school, we have the opportunity to enhance their social mobility — and, quite possibly, ensure the survival of higher education.

I challenge my colleagues in higher education to expand access to underserved students and to walk alongside them through their academic journeys. To start with, colleges must consider factors other than the traditional standardized scores when recruiting underserved students from communities with few economic, health and educational resources. These students do not enroll at the same rate as students who are better prepared for college.

The solution to the looming enrollment cliff is to look at these often-forgotten students.

However, all students can experience academic success — if they are encouraged to believe in their own worth and recognize their own best approach to learning.

As engines of social mobility, universities must focus on more than just getting underserved students in the door. Often these vulnerable students need psychosocial supports, particularly students who may be struggling with precarious immigration status, food insecurity or pervasive violence in their communities.

Here is how we get them in the door at Dominican University, a Hispanic Serving Institution committed to serving low-income, first-generation students of color.  Last year, almost 50 percent of our incoming class was first-generation, 53.8 percent were Pell-eligible and 63 percent indicated that they were responsible for financially contributing to their families.

Related: Progress in getting underrepresented people into college and skilled jobs may be stalling because of the pandemic

To identify and recruit ambitious but underrepresented students, we partner with the To&Through Project, a University of Chicago initiative dedicated to increasing high school and college completion for students of color.

This year’s incoming class was almost 73% Latinx, a demographic that has increased dramatically for the past 10 years. Helping many of these students requires comprehensive support and trusting relationships, often with peer advisors.

Dominican launched the Center for Cultural Liberation in 2020 to provide students of color with a place to gain a sense of belonging. We are also the first university in the country to incorporate NowPow, a personalized referral system that provides students with health and social services within their own communities.

But perhaps the most important thing we do to support success is to foster every student’s understanding of their unique “academic self,” a concept that helps them capitalize on their own learning style and advocate for their needs. The greatest impediment to learning often is rooted in the dissonance between students’ valuation of themselves and the academic learning outcomes to which they aspire. This lack of academic self-confidence and agency is often more pronounced in low-income and first-generation students.

Our responsibility as educators is to help struggling students reshape their relationship to learning by providing structured coaching and mentoring and guiding them toward a mastery of academic content. We try to see students’ challenges as opportunities, not deficits.

In the classroom, faculty must be held accountable for creating a culture that views each student as the master of their education. This creates a partnership between faculty and students and fosters the mindset that if students are not understanding the content, the content has not been explained appropriately. For example, at Dominican, we created “exit tickets” that students submit after class, which are used to refine subsequent tutoring sessions. In addition, we employ a “spotlight system” that surveys first-year students at three, six and nine weeks so we can determine which students are struggling and how we can immediately help them.

Dominican’s strategies for ensuring that all students, including our first-generation and low-income students, persist and graduate on time and with purpose has had significant results. Last year, we had our largest recruitment class and one of the highest retention rates in our 120-year history. Our numbers have remained steady during the pandemic. And we are proud that U.S. News & World Report ranked us No. 2 in social mobility in the Midwest.

While many of our peers might think that serving underrepresented students is challenging, we believe this to be quite simple. The solution to the looming enrollment cliff is to look at these often-forgotten students — who possess the same ability to learn as other students and have a pressing desire to actualize their true selves but are waiting for us to meet them where they are. By reframing these students’ relationship to learning and their understanding of themselves as learners, universities have the opportunity to boost not only the students’ chances for success, but higher education’s as well.

Dr. Barrington Price is vice president of student success and engagement at Dominican University in Illinois.

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