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How to Rethink College Admissions With Equity at Its Core

By Margo Martinez March 12, 2021

By: Margo Martinez, Senior Director of Higher Ed Industry Solutions at

This past year has turned the college admissions process upside down, exposing and exacerbating the barriers that prevent so many students from pursuing higher education. But the COVID-19 pandemic has also presented a unique opportunity to rebuild a new college admissions process with equity at its core.

 Diverse group of students talking with masks on

The pandemic offers an opportunity to reimagine college admissions with equity at the core.

Many education professionals are optimistic that the industry can take critical steps to reimagine admissions. Crystal Newby is one of them. Newby is the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), which hosts conferences like Guiding the Way to Inclusion aimed at admissions professionals committed to championing the needs of diverse students within the college admissions process.

 “We have to ask ourselves ‘Who am I privileging?’ and ‘Who am I marginalizing?’ Admissions offices have to be intentional with how they move forward.” –Crystal Newby, NACAC 

Crystal Newby, NACACCrystal Newby

“The challenges from 2020 — from the pandemic adversely affecting students of color to the social unrest — have really caused a lot more people who hadn’t thought about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to have an aha moment and say, ‘Okay, we need to do this work,’” Newby says.

Alarm Bells for First-Generation and Low-Income Students

While the volume of applications overall is up 10% from a year ago, there are other, more troubling trends beneath this topline number, according to data about submissions from Common App, in what the company is calling an “alarming trend.” From applications after the January 1 and 15 deadlines, the number of first-generation applicants is down 3% from this point a year ago. And the number of students who requested fee waivers for their applications also fell, by 2%.

Although both groups have recovered some from a 7% slide in December, it’s clear that the pandemic is continuing to have equity implications for higher education.

Research shows tremendous disparities in educational attainment in the U.S., with underrepresented and low-income students experiencing higher college dropouts rates and longer timeframes to complete their degrees on average. Only about a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will complete a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared to almost 90% of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile. 

Furthermore, 56% of Hispanic and 46% of Black students finish a four-year degree within six years, compared to 72% of white students. Among students who for the first time entered college in fall 2017, Black students had the lowest persistence rate (66.2%): just over half of Black students returned to the starting institution (52.1%).

Examining Admissions With a Design-Based Mindset

The key to beginning the work of equity in education starts with getting buy-in across the entire institution, says Eric Waldo, chief access and equity programs officer at Common App. Waldo is also one of 15 Impact Labs Fellows who are working on solutions that contribute to more supportive and equitable higher education experiences for learners from marginalized groups.

Eric Waldo, Common App 

Eric Waldo

“We have to really deliberate about how we’re designing experiences that don’t just increase access, but actually increase inclusion.” –Eric Waldo, Common App

“Buy-in has to be throughout an institution. It can’t just be one college president or one member of the board of trustees,” Waldo says. “We have to remember that, historically, higher education institutions weren’t designed with inclusion in mind. So, we have to think about the history, and then we have to really be deliberate about how we’re designing experiences that don’t just increase access, but actually increase inclusion. And that, like all great design, requires talking to students about their experiences.”

Waldo says the mantra of “students being college ready” should be reversed to “colleges being student ready.” That means having a design-based mindset, talking to students directly, and then working across an institution to make those changes — and, of course, measure and hold ourselves accountable for how we’re doing in terms of the student outcomes that matter most. 

“We can all talk about equity, we can talk about diversity, but people observe the power structures and dynamics on campus. If our rhetoric doesn’t match with our design and our policies and our outputs, then that’s the dynamic tension that we feel often in these debates about equity,” Waldo says.

Newby agrees that redesigning admissions policies and practices is paramount. One way to redesign for equity is to eliminate standardized testing. “One of the biggest challenges that the college admission process faces is standardized testing, especially when the pandemic hit,” Newby says. “A lot of students haven’t had access to technology or the Internet to study for or take standardized tests, which many colleges require. These tests were created eons ago and didn’t consider marginalized populations or underrepresented populations, but they continue to be used to measure students’ intelligence and abilities. We know that students offer more than just a test score.”

Newby advises higher education leaders to ask themselves two questions when they think about the admissions process: “Who am I privileging?” and “Who am I marginalizing?” 

“I think colleges and universities really have to take a deep look at those two questions when they’re thinking about admissions, especially now with the pandemic. Admissions offices have to be intentional with how they move forward — this pandemic will have implications for years to come.”

Technology Can Help Drive Equity and Access In College Admissions

Admissions counselors are responsible for shaping incoming classes by supporting applicants and identifying their potential. With thousands of applications to manage, admissions teams are spending more time on paperwork than on building relationships with prospective students. 

College admissions office sign

Technology can help drive equity and access in college admissions.

This is why built Admissions Connect, a new product that helps admissions teams see every applicant’s full story and potential. Admissions Connect increases the efficiency of application review, provides tools to help keep students on track throughout the process, and centralizes data to build actionable insights. By simplifying the application experience, Admissions Connect enables teams to focus where it matters most: helping students move forward on their education journey.

Join us Thursday, March 18 at 10am PDT | 1pm EDT for a Leading Through Change episode featuring Mark Kennedy, president of the University of Colorado, and Dr. Crystal Newby, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at NACAC. The conversation will be followed by a live demo of Admissions Connect and a special appearance from award-winning actor and producer Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

About the Author

Margo Martinez, Senior Director of Higher Ed Industry Solutions at Salesforce.or

Margo Martinez, senior director of higher ed industry solutions at, oversees the go-to-market strategy for recruiting and admissions and student experience. She’s served in higher education technology roles for eight years and spent 20 years in technology, spanning CRM to marketing and media.