States try preemptive admission to boost enrollment, curb brain drain

A handful of states are taking a new approach to building the student body at their community colleges and public universities: proactively admitting high school seniors who meet certain academic requirements—before they even fill out an application. Idaho, in particular, has pioneered the “direct admission” approach, in hopes that eliminating the stress of the application process will increase college enrollment and keep more students in-state, according to The Hechinger Report.

‘Flipping the script’ for Idaho high school students

As of 2016, just 44 percent of Idaho’s graduating seniors went directly to college, compared with 70 percent nationally. Looking to change that, Chuck Staben, former president of the University of Idaho, first came up with the idea for the state’s direct admissions program, as part of “a much larger effort to encourage college-going, and to change the psychology of college-going, particularly among lower-income, first-generation [and other] populations less likely to attend college.”

Idaho was structured for smooth implementation: it has one board of education, which oversees both its K-12 schools and its eight colleges and universities; it also requires all students to take the SAT or ACT.

Using those exam results and grades from students’ junior years, the state board works with Idaho colleges and universities to proactively admit graduating seniors who meet GPA and test-score cutoffs to six or more of the state’s public institutions. Students receive a letter in late September notifying them of their admission to colleges, and parents receive a follow-up letter in October. Students who wish to enroll then must fill out a simple form, as well as a financial aid application, although Idaho officials have said that this fall’s letters will include financial aid information alongside admissions offers.

The direct admission model “is really flipping the script,” Jennifer Delaney—an associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is studying the Idaho experiment—told The Hechinger Report. She said the approach appears to have helped increase enrollment at Idaho colleges and universities by 11 percent. In addition, the state board of education reports a three-percentage-point increase in the share of college-going high school graduates who stay in the state. 

Other states poised to try the model

Idaho’s direct admissions model has attracted attention elsewhere, with South Dakota implementing a similar approach. According to The Hechinger Report, Hawaii, Illinois, and Texas also are considering trial runs for direct admissions, although Delaney suggests that larger states like Illinois might not guarantee admission to their most selective public institutions. Currently, Texas promises admission to any of the state’s universities for in-state college applicants who are in the top 10 percent of their high school class. According to new research from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the policy—first implemented in 1998—has increased access and improved graduation rates.

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