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Teach For America Vows Recruitment Changes in Wake of Application Drop

Faced with a third year of application declines, Teach For America plans to change its recruitment strategy, engaging with college students as early as their sophomore year, the organization's CEO said in a letter issued this morning.

Applications for the 2016 corps were down to around 37,000 students, a number last seen in 2009. It is, though, still far more annual applicants than the organization had in each of its first 20 years. The applicant pool remains diverse, with 50 percent of applicants identifying as people of color and 50 percent coming from low-income families.

The news of the decline isn't especially surprising, given that the organization acknowledged a drop was coming a short while ago when it announced a round of staff layoffs and restructuring. 

In her post, CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard attributed the decline to a general fall in teacher-preparation enrollments, to competitors' improved recruiting strategies, and to the "toxic" policy environment surrounding K-12.

"Companies have become much better at marketing themselves to a socially conscious generation with rising college debt. College students set their career goals earlier and commit earlier to employers. And they're increasingly unlikely to choose a single career for their lifetime at such a young age," she wrote. "Additionally, the toxic debate surrounding education—and attacks on organizations that seek to bring more people to the field—is undeniably pushing future leaders away from considering education as a space where they can have real impact." 

And she told the Washington Post that the organization hadn't responded quickly enough to declining satisfaction among corps members, which might have led to less enthusiastic word-of-mouth.

In all, the decline represents about 35 percent since 2013. In the nation at large, teacher-preparation enrollments have fallen 36 percent since 2009.

TFA recruiting mostly takes place during students' senior year in college, though it does accept some as early as the junior year. Now, Villanueva Beard said, the organization will simplify its application, focus on the most promising candidates, and engage students as early as their sophomore year. She even hints that the group might attempt give interested teachers a taste of the classroom early. "Companies are shifting recruitment to ensure college students have internships and other opportunities to spend time experiencing what the job is like before they commit," she said. "We need to do the same." 

Overall, TFA's final corps will decline by a few hundred students this year. That may also mean certain regions will have to cut staff or shrink; as we've reported extensively at Education Week, Teach For America is pushing much more authority to its 52 regions, and it's expecting them to do the heavy lifting in terms of fundraising. But the organization won't lower its standards to secure more applicants, Villanueva Beard said.

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