Kalamazoo College has long enjoyed notoriety for sending its students out into the world. Now it is also focusing on quite the opposite: bringing the world to Kalamazoo.
For both educational and economic reasons, the College has stepped up efforts to diversify its student population geographically, ethnically, and culturally. That means attracting more students from outside of Michigan and from other countries, as well as enrolling more U.S. students of color.
"The K-Plan and 50 years of study abroad show that Kalamazoo College values a whole-world approach to education," says Dean of Admission Eric Staab. "This is another way of giving students a broader perspective of the world they live in and, just as importantly, of themselves."
Kalamazoo's goal is to have a student population that is 50 percent from outside of Michigan, 7 to 9 percent from countries other than the United States and 20 to 25 percent U.S. students of color. That compares with a current enrollment that is 31 percent, 2 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
Living and learning alongside people from other backgrounds gives students a broader understanding and openness toward diversity and new ideas, Staab says.
"It exposes them to other perspectives and gives them a greater vision of the issues in the world," he explains. "A student from inner-city Chicago sees the world differently than a student from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas or from the Pacific Rim. Together, those students will have a more interesting and engaging conversation in the classroom."
Kalamazoo College President Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran believes that students who experience diversity on campus leave school feeling more comfortable in a global society.
"They have a sense that wherever they find themselves they can be at home and make a home because they respect difference, can view the world from multiple perspectives, can adapt to new situations and have the ability to put themselves at the margins," she says.
Yet preparing students for a pluralistic world is only one motivation for diversifying the campus. There's a pressing economic reason: to help lessen the impact of tough economic times on student enrollment.
"If a majority of our students come from the same state or region, as they do now, we're susceptible to economic downturns in that state or region," Staab explains. "It can have a huge impact on enrollment. By recruiting more students from across the country and internationally, we spread the risk."
In Michigan, home to two-thirds of the school's student body, a perpetually ailing economy has forced many college applicants to forego a private college education in favor of a less-expensive public college or university. What's more, the state's public institutions are raising their enrollment caps and becoming more aggressive in recruiting and financing students to compensate for continually reduced state funding.
"Michigan families are looking harder at the bottom lines," Staab says. "Families choosing between Kalamazoo College and the University of Michigan, for example, may agree that Kalamazoo is a better place academically but may feel more financially secure sending their child to a public university. That's going to hurt our enrollment. So it's important to recruit students from economically diverse parts of the United States and even the world."
Staab is no stranger to international recruitment. Prior to joining Kalamazoo College in 2006, he served for 10 years as coordinator of international admissions at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school in Iowa. Within a month of coming to Kalamazoo, he made a recruiting trip overseas, followed by another in 2007 (along with Coordinator of Admissions Rob Malcolm). Over the next year, international applications jumped threefold, from 50 in 2007 to more than 160 in 2008.
"It's feasible that in the near future we'll see more than 500 international applications a year," says Staab, who plans to continue traveling abroad on a yearly basis.
Overseas recruiting efforts currently focus on the Pacific Rim, the Caribbean and, to some extent, Europe. Because European students have the option of attending free universities, that market is particularly competitive and therefore gets lower priority.
Staab says that the challenges of recruiting abroad are not unlike those stateside, but they tend to be heightened overseas.
"One of the biggest obstacles is money. International travel costs more. And there are financial challenges for students as well. The overwhelming majority of international students need a significant financial package to be able to study in the U.S."
To bolster recruiting efforts, Kalamazoo recently began offering need-based financial aid to international applicants. Although funding is limited right now, Staab hopes to see scholarship opportunities increase as the number of international applications trends upward.
The College's location in the Midwest can be a harder sell overseas, Staab says, especially among Asians and Latin Americans. Asian students are drawn to the West Coast, where they expect to feel more at home among the area's large concentrations of Asian-Americans, and Latin American students find the southern states appealing because of the more moderate climate and closer proximity to home.
Lacking opportunities to visit U.S. campuses, students rely on college web sites, Internet chat rooms, blogs, direct mailings and magazines like U.S. News & World Report and Barron's to gather information and form perceptions.
High school guidance counselors can be a source of information as well, especially if they have personal knowledge of the schools. "We find that the best use of our time overseas is to visit the high schools directly, attend their college fairs, and sell Kalamazoo to their counselors," says Staab. "If we can make inroads with the counselors, they will talk to their students about our school."
With so many high schools - Indonesia alone has 9,000 - and so little time to spend overseas, Staab looks at statistical data to decide which schools to call on.
"First we identify which countries have a high percentage of students looking to come to the United States to study," Staab explains. "Then we look for cities with a high percentage of English-speaking students because those students are more-likely candidates. Then we look at individual schools in those cities. How many students speak English? How many want to study in the U.S.? In Bangkok, there are only four high schools I would consider visiting based on those criteria. In Singapore, which is an English-speaking country, there are many more.
"Then you have to decide how many you can effectively visit in the time you have."
Last July, the College's admissions staff had an opportunity to meet with 30 international counselors all at once, and right on the Kalamazoo campus. Visiting the U.S. for an international educators conference, the counselors participated in a bus tour of select Michigan colleges and universities that included an afternoon and overnight stay at Kalamazoo College.
In a move to diversify enrollment within the U.S. - that is, increase the numbers of out-of-state students and students of color - the College has expanded active recruitment activities to more than 30
"It's feasible that in the near future we'll see more than 500 international applications a year."states, from California to Alaska to Florida. The southern region is getting particular attention, including the Rio Grande Valley of Texas where more than 80 percent of the population is Hispanic - an important demographic in the College's quest to increase ethnic as well as geographic diversity.
As in overseas markets, U.S. efforts target high school counselors. In addition to visiting schools, Kalamazoo brought eight key counselors from across the country to campus last summer to show them firsthand why Kalamazoo is a standout.
Admissions reps also have been touring the country with the nonprofit group Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL) to capitalize on Kalamazoo College's national reputation as a life-changing school. The organization holds college fairs in major U.S. cities to connect high school students and their parents with schools profiled in Colleges That Change Lives, Loren Pope's best-selling admissions guide. Kalamazoo College is one of only 40 colleges nationwide that the author deemed worthy of recognition.
"This book has given us great publicity, and because it's a third-party perception of the institution, it has more credibility than if I were to stand in front of an audience and say 'Kalamazoo College is the best college for you,'" Staab says.
Kalamazoo is participating in 26 CTCL college fairs this year. Each event draws about 400 to 500 students.
Stepped-up efforts to diversify the student body already have paid off: the Class of 2012 was the most diverse the school has seen in years. And beginning this fall, a recent partnership with the Posse Foundation will boost those efforts yet further. The agreement calls for Kalamazoo to enroll, over the next five academic years, 50 high-achieving students from the Los Angeles public school system who come from ethnic and racial groups that are underrepresented in higher education.
Still, Staab says, there's no time for resting on laurels. Demographics point to a steady decline over the next seven years in the number of U.S. students graduating from high school, promising more competition among colleges for students. The number of graduates will then turn sharply upward, so that 15 years from now the number of graduating students will be near what it is today; however, the composition of the graduating class will be quite different - more Hispanic, African-American and Asian American students and fewer Caucasians.
"A much smaller percentage of seniors will be college-bound," says Staab, "because nationally the percentage of Hispanic and African-American students who go on to get a bachelor's degree is far smaller than the percentage of Caucasian and Asian students who do."
Studies show that Hispanic, African-American and first-generation Asian American students tend to be less informed about how to apply to colleges, less aware of liberal arts colleges, less able to afford higher education, and less knowledgeable of financial aid. In the absence of cultural changes in those populations, recruiting U.S. students of color will become more difficult, according to Staab.
Whatever the challenges, Kalamazoo College will remain committed to its goal of a student population that reflects the world.
"This is a strategic goal that complements everything else the College is about - that is, providing an internationally oriented education through its curriculum, study abroad program, SIPs, service-learning and externships," Staab concludes. "These approaches not only make students more employable, it educates them about themselves and makes them better citizens of the world."
Photo: Eric Staab, Dean of Admission
by Cindy Beer