Direct Admissions: Promising, but No Panacea
Direct Admissions: Promising, but No Panacea
Direct-admissions offers prompted more students to apply to college but did not influence their enrollment behavior, a new study found. The results, released on Tuesday, suggest that an automatic acceptance alone isn’t a college-access game-changer.
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For anyone who’s been snoozing in their office for years, many people are now rethinking the act of applying to college. A handful of state university systems and hundreds of colleges have been short-circuiting the old, tedious admissions process by experimenting with some form of direct admissions, in which pre-screened students who haven’t applied to a particular institution receive an acceptance letter informing them that they’ve got a guaranteed spot there, based on their academic qualifications (grades and/or test scores). The students, who also receive a fee waiver, can then complete a simplified form in lieu of a full application to claim their offer.
Proponents say that flipping the traditional admissions script can help more low-income and first-generation students get a college acceptance with relatively little hassle — and encourage them to see themselves as college-ready. “We know from the scholarly literature that applying to college is overly complex,” said Jennifer A. Delaney, associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of the study. “And it is especially so for those students who have the least access to social and cultural capital that make it easier to navigate the college-admissions and search process. We also know … that simplifying this process and providing targeted supports can really help individuals overcome those barriers.”
As prevalent as direct admissions has become, though, little is known about how such programs affect students’ application and enrollment decisions. So Delaney and Taylor K. Odle, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, partnered with the Common Application as well as six public and private colleges to conduct a large-scale, multistate study to gauge the effectiveness of the strategy. Nearly 32,000 high-school students were randomly assigned either to a cohort that received a direct-admissions offer — or to a “business-as-usual” control group. The researchers used data from the National Student Clearinghouse to see where, or if, those students ended up enrolling.
The bottom line: Students who received direct-admissions offers were 2.7-percentage points, or 12-percent, more likely to submit an application to any college than those who did not receive such offers. The former were nearly twice as likely to apply to the college that offered them direct admission. Those impacts were greatest for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority applicants. And students receiving the automatic offers were more responsive to those from larger institutions with higher graduation rates.
But the researchers didn’t find any impacts on students’ enrollment decisions. “This low-cost, low-touch intervention can move the needle on important college-going behaviors,” they wrote in a paper on their findings, “but is insufficient alone to increase enrollment given other barriers to access, including the ability to pay for college.” Though increasing college applications is a meaningful outcome, they conclude, “we believe pressing affordability constraints represent the largest remaining barrier to enrollment.”
Odle said on Tuesday that students who received a direct-admissions offer enrolled in college at similar rates as those in the control group. (About 86 percent of all students in the sample did so within a year of graduating from high school.) “So, a positive story in that direct admissions doesn’t disadvantage any student by any means in terms of their postsecondary-enrollment pathway,” he said. “But it also means that direct admissions isn’t necessarily our panacea for overcoming all barriers that exist in the postsecondary-enrollment pipeline.”
So, yes, the innovative approach can simplify the application process for students and expand the college-going funnel for institutions. “However,” Odle said, “we are very well aware that students face other barriers to access and enrollment, and a huge barrier is affordability.”
The organization found that students receiving direct-admissions offers from a college in their state were 2.3-times more likely to apply to that institution. Those impacts, the Common App determined, were strongest among underrepresented minority students and those living in low-income neighborhoods.
One of the organization’s goals, Jenny Rickard, the Common App’s president and chief executive, said on Tuesday, is “to get rid of that pervasive fear of rejection that seems to plague the college-admissions process, and help students see that college actually is an opportunity that is available to them.”
In the future, Rickard said, the Common App will continue to target underrepresented students, including those who are first-generation and low-income, in its pilot program. But in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on race-conscious admissions, she said, the organization will no longer consider students’ race and ethnicity when determining who should receive direct-admissions offers.
Alan K. Byrd, dean of admissions at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., said on Tuesday that his institution sent direct-admissions offers to about 2,000 students in 2022, as part of the Common App’s pilot program. More than 200 of those students then submitted an application.
The automatic offers, Byrd said, “made them feel wanted. It removed their stress and anxiety about applying, and really presented Mason as a viable option to them.”
Some of those applicants, Byrd said, hadn’t previously considered the university, either because they lived far away, or they hadn’t been sure that they could get in — or if they would fit in there. The unexpected offers prompted some to visit the university for the first time. In the end, he said, 32 enrolled.
Byrd described direct admissions as a promising strategy, but he noted that several students who had planned to enroll backed out last summer after realizing that they couldn’t afford to attend. “It definitely made us realize that we need to make a significant investment in need-based aid,” he said. “We need to figure out how to close that gap.”
Making it easier for students to apply to college is one thing. Making it affordable for them is another.