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Embracing the Initiative as Our Mission

How four ACCU member institutions are leveraging the American Talent Initiative (ATI) to boost enrollment of underserved students

By Kenya McCullum

Since its inception in 2016, the American Talent Initiative (ATI) campaign has been striving to provide college opportunities for underserved students by making a concerted effort to recruit those from low- and moderate-income families. Developed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program, and Ithaka S+R, the Initiative has gained a membership of 125 colleges and universities around the country that have pledged to increase their enrollment of Pell grant eligible students and collectively, ATI members have the goal of enrolling an additional 50,000 low-income students by 2025.

Of course, providing underrepresented students with access to higher education is nothing new to Catholic institutions, so it’s not surprising that some ACCU members have chosen to participate in ATI. We spoke to four schools about their role in ATI and how it aligns with their Catholic mission.


A Perfect Alignment 

The University of Dayton joined ATI in the fall of 2017 because leaders felt the program was in perfect alignment with the school’s Catholic values and the goals it had already established to provide education opportunities to those who could not otherwise afford them.

Jason Reinoehl, VP for Strategic Enrollment, University of Dayton“It aligns with our Catholic value of seeing every person in the image and likeness of God, and needing to have ways to uphold the dignity of each student. And so, we're very intentional about that, and I think that values alignment was what captured our attention,” said Jason Reinoehl, the school’s Vice President for Strategic Enrollment. “Then being a part of a network of institutions with commitment to advancing access and equity for lower income students, I think was also another advantage we saw.”

In order to get the most out of its participation, the University of Dayton has become highly involved with different ATI-related activities, including the president’s membership on the steering committee. In addition, through connections UD has made from ATI, the school has received grants to help it create programs designed to support the low-income students it wants to attract—including full-tuition scholarships that will help the school reach its goal of having Pell eligible students make up 20 percent of first-year enrollments by 2025.

For UD, increasing opportunities for low-income students does not only benefit the ones receiving the financial assistance, it also helps the campus as a whole.

“It makes the educational experience for every student better by having a great diversity of students as part of our student body because every one of our graduates will go into a world where diversity will be a significant part of their day-to-day experience,” Reinoehl said. “In terms of educational quality, we need to provide that type of experience for our students, so ATI is very aligned.”


Building a Diverse Pipeline

When the University of Notre Dame joined the American Talent Initiative in 2019, the school believed it was a good way to assist in its goal of reaching students who would not normally apply, such as first-generation college students.   

Scott Clyde, Executive Director of Enrollment and Student Financial Strategies, University of Notre Dame“We had to start building a pipeline of recruitment of students that were not traditionally applying to Notre Dame. So our recruitment has been seeking out community-based organizations and partner organizations across the globe, but primarily domestically, as well as visiting high schools on our travels in the fall and spring to get these students interested and aware of Notre Dame,” said Scott Clyde, the school’s Executive Director of Enrollment and Student Financial Strategies. “While Notre Dame is a strong brand, we're not seen as possible for some students—maybe that's sticker price, maybe that's a traditional view some people have of whether Notre Dame is for them or not. We've worked really hard in our communications, both in person and on our websites, to try to make an easy on-ramp to learn more about Notre Dame.” 

By creating this on-ramp, which Notre Dame was already dedicated to prior to joining ATI, the school has been able to increase the enrollment of Pell and first-gen students from 14 percent of its first-year class to over 19 percent with the most recent cohort. In addition, the school plans to reach 20 percent by next year, which will amount to hundreds of these students on campus. 

In addition to the ATI resources and best practices that Notre Dame has been able to tap into, Clyde says a huge advantage of participating is gaining access to the network of educators working toward a common goal.

“I think it's a pretty talented group of individuals just to share ideas with, and kind of share your struggles with or problem-solve,” Clyde explained. “I think it also keeps people focused, so if you've started and set a goal, there's that group accountability that comes with it. There are some real advantages to that as well.”


Something Old, Something New 

John W. Buckley, Vice President for Enrollment at Fordham University, says that when the school joined ATI in 2017, it was the perfect opportunity to build on its strengths while adding new recruiting strategies.

John Buckley, Vice President for Enrollment, Fordham University“It’s really been a mix of continuing strengths that we had in place, and also being a little innovative and proactive in response to being part of ATI,” said Buckley.

Part of Fordham’s recruitment efforts include increased community outreach, restructuring financial aid packages, and making programming more accessible in response to the pandemic. In addition, the university has changed its application process to make it more inclusive—and the results are encouraging.

“We moved from an application process that was to a degree reliant on testing to a test-optional approach, and we're seeing now the majority of students submitting applications to the university are not submitting test scores,” Buckley said. “I think that has provided us with a more diverse group of students to evaluate.”

Since becoming involved in ATI and adopting new strategies, Fordham has been able to add 190 Pell eligible students to the undergraduate population and Buckley believes ATI is a great fit for the school to continue on this trajectory.

“We’ve always been an institution with a mission to educate first-generation students, and students who aspire to have a challenging Jesuit Catholic education,” he said. “I think so much of what ATI has articulated in their statements and goals about the program just align very, very well. It's natural.”


A Personal Perspective

As one of the newest ATI members, Santa Clara University has only been involved in the program for about a month, but the school believes it will help boost its priorities to make it more affordable and accessible for low-income students. As part of that goal, SCU has been changing its approach to recruitment, especially since the pandemic has made it more difficult for underrepresented students.

Eva Blanco Masias“Certainly the pandemic has exacerbated a lot of the challenges that students are facing, and so some of the things that we've already started implementing, for example, is outreach to community college students,” said SCU’s VP of Enrollment Eva Blanco Masias. “Two years ago, we announced a new scholarship to encourage students to apply to Santa Clara and we’re looking to build more pipeline programs that'll bring students from the local community colleges, and low-income students, to our campus to really expose them to the opportunities of private institutions.” 

For Blanco Masias, becoming active with the American Talent Initiative is not just consistent with the school’s Jesuit tradition, it’s also a personal issue for her.

“I think being a Catholic institution really provokes us to think about the issues: What are the concerns and challenges communities are facing? Certainly as a first-generation college student myself, I can attest to the power of an education and what that does for you in terms of breaking the cycle of poverty. For me, it’s a concern for a Catholic institution to really empower and change the poverty cycle for families,” said Blanco Masias. “And so the American Talent Initiative really speaks directly to trying to create more opportunities. In addition to the great education we provide, institutions like ours will directly intersect with barriers and challenges. I think as a Catholic institution, it really is a bit of a moral obligation for us to be involved in efforts like this.” 


Additional Resources 

American Talent Initiative Logo


Kenya McCullum is a communications specialist and freelance writer for ACCU.

Photos courtesy of University of Dayton,  University of Notre Dame, Fordham University, and Santa Clara University



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