Most schools, especially here in North America, have issues of diversity and inclusion firmly on their radar, especially with such matters making the news fairly regularly.

Ensuring your institution fosters diversity and is inclusive doesn't have to be headline-worthy, though: it starts with ensuring that prospective students from all backgrounds feel welcome and confident in applying to one of your programs. Here are some insights and strategies on creating more inclusive admissions processes for higher education that were inspired by a workshop we conducted with one of our university clients.

Why do schools need to build diversity and inclusion into their admissions process?

There's no one right answer as to why schools need to consider diversity and inclusion in their admissions process, but there is one wrong answer: to meet a quota.

In order to be successful, you need to believe in what you're trying to accomplish and have in mind the human side at all times. In addition to creating a welcoming environment for prospective students, benefits of taking diversity seriously include:

  • When you have more diversity, there’s more room for all kinds of ideas and opinions and experiences. 
  • You get more sensitive. Issues of sensitivity and cultural competency really come into play if you look like the community that you’re trying to participate in.
  • You get rid of your blind spots. When you have students who all have the same type of life experience, you are blind to what they don’t know about.

How can schools plan for digital inclusivity?

The bridge of moving from intention to action is one of the underlying problems that every organization struggles with.

I think there’s a widespread acceptance or belief that diversity is important and can help everyone achieve their missions, but I think there’s an equally widespread lack of understanding about actionable steps you can take to achieve it. Here are a few tips to get the ball rolling.

Define diversity and inclusion

A lot of organizations have a diversity task force but lack a central definition of “diversity”. It’s mildly problematic how we talk about diversity because it ends up being used as a generic term and a lot of people import different values from it. So, it should be more specific to the organization and everyone in the workplace should be well aware of this definition. If you already have a definition, take a moment to review it (seek multiple perspectives!) and redefine it if necessary.

Once you've clearly defined what diversity means in your context, you'll have an easier time identifying the challenges surrounding these types of issues.

Another word of advice: define both diversity and inclusion. We often forget inclusion. It’s one thing to be diverse; it’s another thing to be inclusive. Treating divergent viewpoints or different backgrounds and experiences inclusively takes more than simply acknowledging their existence.

Listen to your audiences

  • Talk to people. What the words diversity and inclusion mean are different in different places. By listening to people from varied backgrounds, you'll get the information you need to decide where to meet people in this conversation
  • Remember: access isn’t inclusion. For instance, inviting a group to a meeting might ensure diversity, but that’s not all you need to do. Making them feel included or needed for the meeting is equally important.

Create a roadmap

Know that we have got real problems, so we need to put real numbers to ensure diversity and most importantly set real consequences for failing to meet those numbers.

  • Create a task force to address the issue 
  • Have training sessions
  • Define a roadmap - as diversity really is more like a journey: where we have been, where we are headed and what do we do to get where we need to be?

Speak directly to potential students

Having a separate admissions website is an opportunity to speak directly to potential students. Keep in mind that there are two different modes of information-seeking at play here: some prospective applicants will be doing research in order to help make their final decision, while others will want to apply.

Who are you speaking to?

Through a combination of analytics and user journey mapping, your team can figure out what the new UX should be. (See here for more on conducting UX workshops!)

Start by looking at your users and their priorities, then dive deeper into these personas. Here are some findings from a workshop Evolving Web conducted with one of our university clients:

  1. Lean on the reputation of [school] - Canadian students going into [field of specialization] are going to know about [school]. And you want to position the school to aspiring young [specialists] across Canada
  2. But you also have a growing international student body, so you need to also need to show how [school and city] stand out from other options worldwide, and what [school] life is like for those who have never been there.
  3. Students who are already working will have other priorities like program flexibility
  4. Every student is an individual, so appealing to that makes creating a single narrative a challenge

📚 For more insights on how students interact with different types of web content, read Surprising stats and useful facts about university websites.

Specific strategies to drive engagement on your admissions site

Make content accessible

Accessibility is more than a box to tick off on a checklist. One in five people worldwide live with some type of disability, and diversity extends to ability as much as it involves things like cultural backgrounds.

Another facet of accessibility is clarity. In order to make your content as accessible to a broad range of people as possible, consider things like language barriers and avoid using highly idiomatic language or field-specific jargon. Simple is best!

Include clear, prominent calls to action

Choose your words carefully. Sometimes a simple turn of phrase can be interpreted as being inclusive - or not - to different types of people. That's why it's important to have a diverse team to run this type of thing by. You can read more about this in our article about conveying critical health information to citizens during a pandemic.

Highlight your school’s differentiators

Again, the key is messaging. Consider more than one perspective when it comes to sussing out what makes your school unique.

If your institution doesn't already have a list of its differentiators, consider holding a workshop with a good range of staff, faculty, non-students, students, and alumni to define them. A well-defined differentiator is:

  • Unique. What makes you stand out from similar institutions?
  • Valuable. How does your school make a difference in ways that others don't?
  • Demonstrable. Are you able to back up your differentiator with tangible evidence?

Help applicants select their program

A good way to help prospective students select the right program for their goals is to provide a way for them to easily compare and contrast the different programs you offer. Another thing to leverage here is student and alumni stories. As always, make sure to showcase diverse perspectives, and strive to be inclusive of all sorts of student challenges, from potential language barriers to balancing parenting with classes.

These are just some things to consider when assessing how inclusive your institution's processes for admissions truly are. You might also like to read our article on designing an inclusive digital content strategy to dig even deeper into these concepts and how to build them into your school's digital presence.

Thanks to Rakhi Mandhania for contributing to the content of this article.