Providing access to the underserved has long been a
priority in college admission. A newer trend to increase access to
underserved students are fly-in programs that enable students to visit
campuses overnight, get deeper insight into a college, and consider
schools that they might not have otherwise.
“The idea for fly-ins is to increase the number of underrepresented
students on campus—it’s important for colleges to include a number of
student categories under this underrepresented umbrella—including
first-generation, lower-income, students of color, and students from
rural communities,” explains Jonathan April, general manager of College
Greenlight, an online platform providing important resources to
first-gen and other underrepresented students.
Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, is one institution
that has launched a fly-in program. Discover Swarthmore is open to any
high school senior, but is geared toward students of color, low-income
students, rural students, first-generation-to-college students, and
other traditionally marginalized students, including DACA/undocumented
To make visiting a campus truly accessible to all populations,
college fly-in programs are often free for students. Discover Swarthmore
covers the costs of transportation, including flights (and even luggage
fees), train fare, and reimbursement for driving. Current Swarthmore
undergrads host visiting students and dine with them in the campus
“Fly-ins are all about expanding access to students traditionally on
the margins of the college application process,” said Windsor L. Jordan
Jr., Swarthmore’s senior assistant dean of admissions and director of
multicultural recruitment. “So for students who can't afford to travel
for a campus visit, or live in a rural environment where travel is
limited, a fly-in program is invaluable to giving them insight into a
The program has grown over the past few years. It is now offered
twice each fall and a spring fly-in program has started for admitted
Counselors and others nominate students for the fall program.
Advisers at community-based organizations, teachers, and high school
counselors can suggest students beginning in February.
“This allows us to begin communicating with counselors who are
working with these populations sooner and give them a long runway to
work with as they think about who to nominate,” Jordan said.
Each campus develops a fly-in program differently, depending on their
institutional priorities. Diversity and student engagement with campus
resources are central to Swarthmore’s fly-in program.
“One of the really special things about Discover Swarthmore is that
our admissions office has a chance to partner with diversity and
inclusion leaders on our campus and student groups in our cultural
centers to create programming that raises up the voices and experiences
of underrepresented students on our campus,” Jordan explained. “This
means when students arrive on campus for our fly-in they get a chance to
interact with folks who share their experience and (they) can learn
directly from them about what it’s like to be a student of color or a
first-generation-to-college student on our campus.”
It’s not just private small liberal arts colleges, like Swarthmore,
that host fly-in programs—many public universities offer them as well.
The Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan,
in Ann Arbor, started its All-Access Weekend two years ago. The event
is aimed at students interested in studying business and offers
participants the opportunity to engage in different business-based
Like Swarthmore, the school also offers a second fly-in program aimed
at admitted students. So far, Ross Preview Weekend has been a success:
in its first year, 75 percent of participants chose to enroll after
attending, and the number of students from limited-income families
($75,000 annual income or below) rose 5 percent, according to C.J.
Mathis, the school’s assistant director of undergraduate admissions.
He noted that the Ross events are somewhat unique because they bring parents or guardians to campus along with their students.
“For many underrepresented students, college choice is a family
decision,” he said. “… It is equally as important to involve the family
so (they) have a sense of comfort knowing if their student chooses our
institution, that they will have the resources necessary to be
successful and feel supported holistically.”
Fly-in programs have positive benefits for students, said Ellen
Ridyard, director of Sponsor-a-Scholar at Philadelphia Futures, a
nonprofit that provides resources for low-income, first-generation
college students to ease access to college.
“We’ve definitely seen the impact of fly-ins in the way they cemented
students’ connection to campus and decision to apply early decision…”
said Ridyard. “Students are able to capture significant fit details and
heightened storytelling in their supplementary essays based on their
time on campus—information you can’t find by browsing the college
Philadelphia Futures has strategic partnerships with several colleges
in Pennsylvania, including: Albright College, Arcadia University,
Dickinson College, Drexel University, Gettysburg College, Franklin &
Marshall College, Haverford College, Lafayette College, Lehigh
University, Penn State University, Temple University, and Villanova
University. Students visit each partner college annually during a day
trip. And program staff encourage seniors to attend fly-in programs at
any college they are seriously considering, although Ridyard notes that
space constraints limit the number of students who can participate in
any given program.
Fly-in programs not only allow students to learn more about a college
and deepen their interest in applying. They can also help prevent
students from making the wrong college choice, Ridyard noted.
“For example, last fall a student visited a selective liberal arts
college with a strong math program and quickly realized that the
learning environment was too small,” Ridyard said. “From there, the
student pivoted and focused their application efforts on larger,
selective research institutions.”
Sometimes students and parents have misconceptions about what a fly-in program is.
Mathis recommends that counselors and admission officers encourage
students to explore their options, while also being clear about the
purposes of the program.
“For example, invitation to a fly-in program does not guarantee
admission in many programs, so it’s important that students understand
this early in order to best manage expectations for all involved,” says
If a student really enjoys their experience at a fly-in program and
decides that it’s a top choice, it can be disappointing if they are not
ultimately accepted to that institution. Likewise, students can face
disappointment if they aren’t selected to attend a fly-in program at one
of their top choice schools.
“Even though students understand that fly-in programs are
competitive, they still feel the sting of rejection if not selected to
participate, and further coaching can be needed to keep a student
hopeful about admission when a fly-in application doesn’t pan out,”
For a higher education institution that wants to increase access and
attract a more diverse pool of applicants, starting a fly-in program can
be one method used to accomplish that goal.
Jordan encourages any institution considering launching a program to
do so, but he acknowledges fly-ins can be a “costly and time-heavy
undertaking” for admission staff.
“Whatever shape the fly-in takes, it should align with the goals of
the institution and take into consideration students who are
traditionally at the margins in this college process,” Jordan said. “All
institutions don’t have the same resources and therefore won’t have the
same fly-in program.”
Some fly-in programs are national and some are regional. It is up to
the institution to determine which type of program would best meet their
When developing a fly-in program, Jordan encourages institutions to
bring together campus stakeholders early and often. “Fly-in programs are
campus-wide endeavors that include dining services, facilities,
academic support along with cultural centers faculty, and students—your
planning should include all these voices as you build and pull off the
program,” he advises.
Mathis says admission offices should ensure that there is support for
a fly-in program both administratively and financially. “You may have
to start small and grow your program, so determine what’s important to
your institution to create buy-in and be ready and willing to present
the results of your program early and often,” he noted.
April, with College Greenlight, recommends that colleges “know what they can offer.”
“Fly-in programs that cover all costs are what many have come to
expect for the communities that institutions are looking to reach, so
even if you can only do that for a small number of students, it makes
more sense to offer everything to a few students, rather than add costs
for a bigger group,” he says.
Some institutions require counselors to nominate students; others allow students to apply without a nomination.
“We think a combination of the two is the best option,” April said.
“Counselor nominations can be incredibly helpful in knowing that
students have been specifically selected for a program and likely are a
good fit for the opportunity. The purpose of fly-ins is to increase
access, so we also like the ability for students to nominate themselves,
reducing a potential access barrier.”
And remember: Starting a fly-in program does not guarantee instant success.
Fly-in programs seem to be gaining in popularity and that trend is likely to continue.
“Institutions are recognizing building relationships with students
from diverse backgrounds early in the recruitment process increases
application and yield rates,” notes Mathis. “Also, the traditionally
aged college-going population is beginning to decline, and so
institutions are having to rethink and be more innovative with
April predicts that fly-in programs will continue to reach another type of underrepresented student in the future.
“The future of fly-in programs is trending to support rural
students,” he says. “Students from these communities have strong roots
and the counselors that support them encourage relationship-building. If
they are going to leave home, which many of them want to, they need to
know that it is going to be the right fit for them. Fly-in programs
provide that opportunity without financially burdening the family and
grow trust between the family and the environment (where) they will be
sending their child for four years.”
A fly-in program is a chance to not only engage prospective students
from diverse backgrounds but also educate others in the college
admission process about your institution’s goals. From that perspective,
it has even greater benefits beyond just attracting prospective
“A fly-in program isn’t just a chance to talk to prospective students
about your institution, but can also be a chance to educate high school
counselors, community-based organization advisers, and teachers about
how your institution supports underrepresented students,” says Jordan.
“It is good to think about what materials these influencers need to help
their students make informed decisions about the financial aid policy
or support systems at your institution.”
“Depending on the overall intended outcomes of their program, it may
take time to see desired results,” advises Mathis. “So, be committed to
the purpose, but also continue assessing the program and adjust,
adapting to the needs of the students as they pertain to your intended
Policies vary by institution. Some programs set curfews and may
require an adult to accompany a student on their visit. Other
institutions select certain staff members to supervise visiting
On campuses where current college students serve as hosts, training is usually involved.
At the University of Michigan, where the Ross School of Business
hosts fly-in programs, organizers adhere to strict guidelines and
training requirements set by the university’s Children on Campus office,
said C.J. Mathis, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at
“In order to host minors on campus, the programming staff must
complete the trainings and review the training every year,” he
In addition, for students to participate in the school’s All-Access
Weekend fly-in program, they must bring along “at least one parent,
guardian, or an adult that the parent has approved as their guardian
proxy (who) stays with the student,” Mathias said.
The school is also careful about when it schedules its fly-in
programs, avoiding dates that correspond with football games, local
festivals, or party-centric holidays like St. Patrick's Day.
At Swarthmore College (PA), similar policies are in place to keep
fly-in participants safe. Prior to arriving on campus, students fill out
a permission form and share their emergency contacts, allergies, and
medication information with program organizers.
Two members of the staff stay overnight at an on-campus inn and
respond to participants’ needs 24 hours a day. Students can easily
access the contact information of the dean on-call—it’s printed on the
back of each attendees’ name tag. And information about visiting
students and their on-campus hosts is shared with program leaders as
well as Swarthmore’s public safety team, residential life team, and the
dean of students’ office.
“We have a safety plan that we review with staff before the program,
so each member of the team knows what to do in an emergency situation,
whether it be as simple as a bug bite or has severe as a broken limb,”
explained Windsor L. Jordan Jr., Swarthmore’s senior assistant dean of
admission and director of multicultural recruitment.
“The most important thing about safety during the overnight program
is to provide families and students with the information they need in
order to contact us if they require help, and that our team knows what
to do if something should occur,” he added.
Coordination before students arrive on campus allows for a quick
response and assures families that their student will be well cared for.
“Fly-in programs are an all-campus undertaking,” Jordan said.
Elena Loveland (formerly Elaina Loveland) is a freelance writer and the author of Creative Colleges: Finding the Best Programs for Aspiring Actors, Artists, Designers, Dancers, Musicians, Writers, and More.