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Are Direct College Admissions the Future of Higher Education?

by Sharita Forrest, UI News Bureau / Apr 25, 2023

Jennifer Delaney in front of a mural at the Education Building

Direct college admissions can benefit both students and institutions, promoting access for first-generation and underrepresented students and boosting enrollment, according to Jennifer Delaney, associate professor of higher education in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership.

Jennifer Delaney has co-written studies that examine the impact of direct college admissions – where all students who attain certain high school GPAs are automatically admitted. Delaney spoke with UI News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about this trend and the implications for equity and diversity.

How many colleges and universities in the U.S. so far are utilizing or test-driving direct admissions?

We have seen growth in the use of direct admissions from institutions and states and through some companies. There are a number of states operating direct admissions programs, such as Idaho, Hawaii, and Minnesota. Some states, like Connecticut, are in the process of designing systems, while South Dakota had a proactive admissions system but suspended its use during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The private, non-profit Common App has run direct admissions pilot programs since 2019. In the 2022-23 academic year, 14 universities participated in the Common App program, and they offered direct admissions spots to 30,000 students. There are also some for-profit companies moving into this space like Greenlight Match; Concourse, which is owned by EAB; and Niche.

How do these systems affect enrollment patterns at colleges and universities?

Direct admissions are advantageous for colleges and universities. In our research in Idaho, we found increases in first-time undergraduate enrollment of 4-8%, ranging from 53-104 students per campus, following the introduction of the policy. 

Most of these gains were concentrated in open-access institutions. In addition, students were more likely to remain in-state for college under a direct admissions system, with our research showing a 4-8% increase in in-state students, about 80-143 students per campus. While these overall effects are promising, we did not find impacts for low-income students in Idaho, likely because their direct admissions system only offers admissions and does not incorporate student financial aid.

Do you foresee this as something that will become universal, including elite institutions?

It is not clear that the “traditional” college admissions process is needed today. The idea that we ask each student to search for colleges then to fill out individual, customized applications seem outdated at a time where there are state longitudinal data systems that already collect most of the information that is asked for on college applications. 

We also know that there are inequities in the current college admissions process such that those students who have more social and cultural capital are more likely to engage in the process and to attend college. The administrative and bureaucratic barriers present in traditional college admissions systems are unnecessary barriers. They deflect students from attending college, even when they would benefit from pursuing a college degree.

Removing these barriers is likely to be most impactful for vulnerable student populations such as those who are low-income, first generation, rural, foster youth and from minoritized backgrounds. Removing these barriers should produce additional equity and equality of opportunity.

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