Guaranteed college admission in ninth grade?

California State University, Fresno (Fresno State) is offering guaranteed admission to students from partnering K-12 school districts through its Bulldog Bound program, Inside Higher Ed reports. Students receive a guarantee of admission as early as the ninth grade and receive formal early admission and estimates on their financial aid package in 11th grade, as long as they meet the minimum CSU requirements.

Partnering school districts, meanwhile, work with families to ensure that students remain on track. Students are not obligated to attend Fresno State, but officials hope the effort increases college aspirations among students in regions where residents experience high levels of poverty and are often skeptical about the benefits of higher education.

Related: Want to close college access gaps? Take action by 9th grade, study says. >

“These kinds of programs really demystify higher education and blend the two worlds,” says Mary Churchill, director of the higher education administration program at Boston University. “That’s the kind of education ecosystem our country needs right now.”

Boosting college enrollment

Bulldog Bound is a multifaceted program for both students and their families, providing college counseling resources, college preparatory classes, campus tours, financial literacy information, career and academic major exploration, and dual enrollment opportunities. Participating high school students also receive a Fresno State ID and entry to its campus libraries. 

To be eligible for the program, students, with the consent of their parent(s) or guardian(s), sign a guaranteed admission agreement with Fresno State. The program is in its first year, and more than 4,000 students across 29 partnering school districts have signed up to participate, according to a university spokesperson.

Related: Could direct admissions reduce barriers for low-income, first-gen students? >

While the goal is to reach students earlier, the new program has even expanded engagement among current high school seniors, feeding a “dramatic increase” in Bulldog Bound applicants from participating high schools, says Fresno State president Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval. The largest number of students have come from rural areas that typically don’t send many students to four-year colleges.

“Starting this path of knowledge leads to a sense of self-worth, which we hope leads to a sense of belonging here at Fresno State,” Jiménez-Sandoval told Inside Higher Ed. “Knowing early on what it takes to get here, and having faces and names connected to professors and counselors, makes the idea of college, which can often feel indifferent and strange, less distant. It puts it in reach.”

Benefits of early outreach

Direct admissions programs like Bulldog Bound have risen in popularity, and have seen increased interest following the Supreme Court ruling that ended race-conscious admissions. Research has shown that direct admissions benefits high-achieving students from underrepresented communities. Direct admissions can also help reduce “undermatching,” wherein talented, low-income students apply to less-competitive institutions with lower graduation rates and fewer resources.

Related: Georgia joins growing number of states trying direct admissions >

Bulldog Bound is unique in contacting students before their junior or senior year of high school. Early outreach to students about their college aspirations helps students see higher education as a reality. The program’s frequent engagement with students and their families helps them feel equipped for college, no matter where they decide to attend.  

Starting the conversation early is a “fantastic idea,” says Boston University’s Churchill, given that “a student’s college-going identity—whether they see themselves going or not, what kind of institution they see themselves at—begins forming in seventh and eighth grade.”

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