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More public colleges admit high schoolers even before they’ve applied

By Elaine S. Povich,

For some ninth-graders near Fresno, California, the invitation — years before they’ll don a cap and gown — comes out of the blue: You’ve been accepted to Fresno State, the letter says.

Public universities across the country increasingly are sending such acceptance letters even before students apply to college. In more than a third of states, at least one public university now uses “direct admission” programs that automatically admit high school students if they meet certain academic criteria.

The programs seek to help fill college and university rosters in a time of declining high school populations. They entice high school students by allowing them to avoid the stressful college application process for a guaranteed spot. And they are likely to grow in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing race-based admissions, as a new way for schools to increase diversity in their applicant pools.

Some states, such as California and Texas, have long used guaranteed admission programs, under which high school students who graduate in a top percentage of their class are automatically admitted to certain public universities. Direct admissions programs, though, typically go a step further, proactively reaching out to students and providing information on options, requirements and application steps.

“For us to be able to say to our ninth-graders, you can go to college, and you are conditionally accepted into Fresno State, I cannot tell you the way the kids light up,” said Misty Her, deputy superintendent of the Fresno Unified School District. She said 95% of the students in her district qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

Under Fresno State’s “Bulldog Bound” program, ninth graders from partnering school districts in four counties who meet minimum California State University requirements are automatically accepted, as long as they maintain their grades and fulfill high school graduation requirements. Gone are the complicated applications and fees, standardized tests, and the pressure to stack up extracurricular activities, Fresno State officials said. And the college will make early financial aid estimates.

In the meantime, the students get Fresno State IDs, a college email address and access to campus libraries.

“I believe in my heart that this is the gold standard on how to recruit, how to retain and how to graduate students,” said Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, in announcing the program.

“I’m excited that states and institutions are thinking about ways to streamline the pipeline into college,” said Taylor Odle, assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied college admission policy extensively.

With direct admissions, “the dinner table conversation can be: ‘Do I go or not go?’ Not ‘Did you fill out that form, did you write that essay?’” Odle said.

For high school students whose families may not have attended college, being able to skip the lengthy admissions process is a “real game changer,” said Mary Churchill, director of the higher education administration program at Boston University, and an expert in college admissions.

“If you’re offering direct admission to ninth graders, you actually know them and can prepare for them,” she said. She said that when colleges know incoming students, the schools can better prepare to serve them and make a seamless educational journey from kindergarten to college’s senior year.

However, the programs can have some drawbacks. They can be limiting for students who already plan to go to college but might stop striving for a more selective university once they have received a direct admission offer. That’s called “undermatching,” Churchill said.

Other potential drawbacks include students overlooking the importance of evaluating whether the school would be a good fit, experts said.

State programs

In South Dakota, where fewer students are graduating high school and fewer of them are enrolling in higher education, a pilot project will begin this fall to inform some high school juniors in Aberdeen, Sioux Falls and Spearfish that they have been proactively admitted to one or more of the state’s universities. They include Black Hills State, Northern State, South Dakota State and the University of South Dakota, according to the South Dakota Searchlight.

In Georgia, a program called Georgia Match, championed last year by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, sent letters to 120,000 high school seniors, saying they are eligible to enroll in one of up to 23 public universities or 22 technical schools without an application fee. The marquee state schools — University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia College & State University — are not participating.

In a dozen states, at least one public university uses the Common App direct admissions program: Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia.

The Common App allows students to apply to multiple colleges using one online application, and is widely used among high school seniors.

Idaho was the first state to have a statewide direct admissions program, which started in 2015. It offers admission to all Idaho high school graduates. A study published in January 2022, by Odle, found the Idaho program increased in-state undergraduate enrollments by between 8% and 15%, depending on the campus. But the gains were concentrated on two-year campuses, the study said.

Connecticut, Hawaii and Minnesota also have begun some state-run direct admission programs.

“It’s more than admissions — it’s a commitment to supporting dreams and building futures,” said Phong Yang, associate vice president for strategic enrollment management at Fresno State.

Pros and cons

The college application process can be a barrier, said Odle, who found in a 2023 working paper studying 1.2 million high schoolers that a quarter of students who start a Common App application to college never finish it.

The biggest indicator of whether a student ultimately submitted a college application was whether they completed the essay on their Common App, the paper found. It showed that 94% of students who provided a valid essay response submitted an application, compared with only 43% of non-submitters.

The number of completed applications varied widely by student ethnicity and career aspirations, parents’ educational attainment, school type, and community educational attainment and household income, the paper said.

David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said direct admissions programs can be beneficial both to students and colleges, especially in firing up students to seek the college experience.

But he cautioned that students should be careful in evaluating the direct admission offers to see if the college is the right fit. Students with disabilities, for example, need to look into the campus’s accommodations, he said. And any student needs to be comfortable with the university.

“Not all students are going to be the best fit for every school,” Hawkins said. “A large state university may not be right for a student who doesn’t love large crowds.” Those students should check out other schools, he said. Counselors could say to them: “Have you considered XYZ college? Look elsewhere.”

Joan Koven, an educational consultant in the Philadelphia area who guides students through college applications and essays, said direct admission programs also help colleges attract a diverse student body.

“Everybody is looking for ways, after the SCOTUS decision [ending race-based admissions], to help round out the student body,” she said in a phone interview.

She said the only downside she sees in direct admission is if students get to college “and it’s not what you expect, or you can’t do the work and you drop out.”

“You want to find the right blend of getting people eager for a college education and [knowing] what that might look like,” she said.

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.

©2024 States Newsroom. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Source: Orange County Register

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