In Direct Admissions, 'There's a Seat for You'

by Julie Wurth, News-Gazette Media  /   Dec 23, 2019

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Each year, more than a quarter of Illinois high school graduates choose not to go to college. Of those who enroll at four-year institutions, almost half go out of state.

And while enrollment is booming at the University of Illinois, some of the state’s public universities have seen their numbers decline. What if every graduating senior had a guaranteed spot at one of the state’s colleges or universities up front?

That’s what the state of Idaho decided to try when it adopted a “direct admissions” system in 2015, automatically admitting all high school students to one of its eight public institutions. Since then, it has seen an 88 percent increase in college applications, a 6.7 percent increase in the state’s college-going rate, and a 3 percent drop in students heading out of state for college, according to UI Education professor Jennifer Delaney, who organized a recent conference on direct admissions at the iHotel.

Idaho—which has fewer students than the city of Chicago—is on a different scale from Illinois. But the idea of direct admissions is intriguing to Delaney and other educators who say it could be a low-cost way to boost college participation, especially for black and Latino students and those in rural areas.

Under direct admissions, students are proactively admitted to college. Typically all students get into open-access institutions, such as community colleges or universities that admit at least 80 percent of applicants. Students who meet certain academic thresholds, based on grade point averages and ACT/SAT scores, get into more selective colleges.

Students receive a letter indicating they have been admitted to a set of colleges and explaining how to claim their spot using a common, free application.

For those who hadn’t considered college at all, “to get a letter that says, ‘You’re college material, and by the way we’ve got a seat for you,’ is life-changing,” Delaney said.

Flipping the script

Traditional admissions systems rely on students having the knowledge and means to work their way through admissions applications and financial aid forms and find a school that fits their abilities, Delaney said. Colleges send admissions officers on recruiting visits but they tend to go to “feeder” high schools, not low-income schools where no one has applied to that college for 10 years, she said.

“This flips the script on that and says, ‘You’re already qualified. You don’t have to fill the form in every time for every school. We already have your data, and you’re already in.’ It’s universal, so it levels the playing field,” she said.

Students can still apply to other schools on their own, “but you’ve already got a sure bet and you know there’s a seat for you somewhere,” she said.

Chuck Staben, former president of the University of Idaho, said the idea grew out of an experiment. He decided to apply to his university to “see how it went, and it was awful. The application was terrible.”

He decided the university had to change its application, but also wondered why it was asking students to submit information that the state already had, such as high school transcripts and ACT/SAT scores.

“All the questions I was filling out are the ones the state board already has on every student at every public high school in Idaho,” he said. “Why am I not just welcomed into higher education based on the credentials that I’ve generated?”

The Idaho experience

Byron Yankey, college and career advising program manager of the Idaho State Board of Education, said the state’s enrollment had been static, with a low-income and heavily rural population and a huge number of families where no one has attended college. Officials wanted to promote the “big idea” that “there really is an option for every student in Idaho after high school,” he said.

“In Idaho the expectation of most students is, ‘I’m not going to go to college.’ What we’d like to do is reset the expectation to, ‘I can go to college, and I should go to college,’” Staben said.

There was little resistance from other universities, though Yankey said the quick implementation had officials scrambling to get information out to students and parents the first year. Since then it’s drawn “huge support” from families, communities, high schools and universities, he said.

“We initially brought in about the same number of students, but more Idaho students stayed in Idaho,” Staben said, particularly those who live near the Utah border.

The state also instituted a free college application for all state schools called “Apply Idaho.”

The direct admissions program includes only public colleges and universities, but two private schools have since joined the Apply Idaho application and have seen significant enrollment increases, Yankey said.

It’s too early to say what the long-term impact might be in terms of graduation rates, he said.

Would it work here?

Delaney, who was recently appointed to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, thinks direct admissions is feasible in Illinois, but “we’ve got more challenges than they do in Idaho.”

“The magnitude is different. But that’s part of why it’s so exciting to think about,” she said.

One issue is that Illinois’ system for collecting longitudinal data about students isn’t as robust as the one in Idaho, she said.

Idaho was in some ways a perfect test bed, Staben said, with relatively few colleges and universities and the country’s only unified K-20 board of education (kindergarten through graduate school). Illinois has two separate boards governing K-12 and higher education.

In Idaho, every student gets into all community colleges plus two of the four-year institutions, and those who have roughly a 3.0 GPA or better are admitted to more selective schools as well. Any plan in Illinois would likely have to include more tiers of acceptance, given the wide range of universities and admission requirements, Delaney said.

Another wrinkle: the UI admits students into particular colleges, not to the campus as a whole, and some colleges are much more selective than others. Idaho’s program admits students into universities generally, and students can then apply for specific programs.

But Staben thinks some elements could work in Illinois.

“These aren’t impossible things. This was inspiring to students, it was inspiring to our state board. It reminds us of our mission. And it costs almost nothing,” he said.

While the UI’s highly rated Urbana campus already turns away thousands of students each year, direct admissions might be a way to increase diversity in the student body, Delaney said.

“People who didn’t ever think they could go to the Urbana campus get a letter that says, ‘Hey, you’re in.’ And that’s amazing potential for changing people’s lives,” she said.

Direct admissions could be an enormous help to schools with falling enrollment, such as Governors State, Chicago State, Western and other regional universities, Delaney and Staben said.

Illinois’ high school population is declining, and it has a slightly below-average progression to college compared to other states, which typically hurts a state’s economy, said Staben, a UI graduate who grew up in Waukegan.

Read the full story from News-Gazette Media's Julie Wurth...