When Colleges Apply to Students | Washington Monthly
Growing up in a single-parent household in Rochester, New York, Olivia Galloway dreamed of being the first in her family to attend college. She worked hard at her high school, a charter school called Young Women’s College Prep, taking no fewer than seven AP classes. But her mother, a home health aide, didn’t have the resources to splash on expensive extracurricular college prep, nor the college experience to guide her daughter. Olivia had set her sights on a nearby college with a well-regarded nursing program—she hopes to become an obstetrics nurse—but, not knowing the process, she missed the deadline to apply.
This past fall, however, a college counselor at Olivia’s school introduced her and fellow seniors to a new program that reversed the admissions process, making it easier for underprivileged students like her. Instead of filling out piles of forms and sending them to each school, Olivia simply created a profile on an online platform, which colleges pay to access. She added information about her academics and her personal interests—she enjoys reading, writing, baking, and cooking—and then waited for the acceptance letters to start rolling in. Hardly 24 hours passed before she started hearing from schools. “It was so surprising and truly amazing to see all my options open overnight,” she told me this summer. “I was contacted by 12 different colleges and all of them gave me amazing scholarships.”
Olivia ultimately accepted an offer from Daemen University, the Buffalo-area school whose regular admissions deadline she had missed. Thanks to Daemen’s offer, Olivia says, she most likely won’t have to take out student loans. “My reaction to Daemen was excitement,” she told me. “I was grateful for all of the universities that reached out to me, but Daemen was like a breath of fresh air—it was close to home, had the program I wanted, and had a beautiful dreamy campus!”
Olivia’s experience illustrates an emerging national trend known as “direct admission”—a low-cost alternative that could revolutionize the way students of lesser means apply to college. Programs like the one Olivia used, which is called Greenlight Match, have expanded dramatically in recent years, growing from one program in Idaho in 2015 to multiple states and hundreds of colleges today. Some states, such as Idaho, Hawaii, Illinois, and Connecticut, are running or developing direct admission programs themselves, while other programs are operated by private companies.
For most high school students, applying to college is an anxiety-filled game of wait-and-see that starts after they send off applications and may well end in rejection. But it’s also a game of resources, one that rich, well-connected families are primed to win. Parents with lower incomes don’t have the means for SAT tutors, application coaches, and visits to multiple schools in far-flung states. If they didn’t go to college, they may not know how to pick “reach” and “safety” schools, or fill out a financial aid application. As a result, these parents and students may apply to too few schools, or maybe, out of discouragement, none at all. In other words, not only is the college application process stressful for all students, but it is also especially ill-suited to students from lower-income, less educated families—that is, to people like Olivia.
This new approach is already producing results for students, as well as filling critical needs for colleges and the workforce more broadly. Idaho, which in 2015 became the first state to adopt direct admission, saw an 11 percent boost in undergraduate enrollment over the next four years, according to a 2019 study. That’s welcome news for universities, which are fighting even harder to attract students now amid sagging enrollment numbers that haven’t recovered since the pandemic. Meanwhile, the national job market is producing far more roles for college graduates than it has workers with degrees to fill them (although the demand for college grads has cooled somewhat as people return to the workforce post-pandemic). And college-educated workers earn a median 84 percent more than those without a postsecondary degree. Ultimately, by getting more students into college—and especially ones from low-income backgrounds—direct admission promises to help grow the economy, fight inequality, and keep higher education afloat.
In 2010, only 45 percent of Idaho’s high school seniors enrolled in an institution of higher education—the least in the country. The Potato State also boasted lower-than-average incomes and was having trouble keeping its young people from moving away. In response, the Idaho Board of Education set an ambitious goal: It would increase the state’s overall college completion rate among 25-to-34-year-olds, which was 34.7 percent that year, to 60 percent by 2020. In 2015, in support of that goal, legislators adopted a direct admission program that notified all graduating seniors who met a preset academic threshold that they were accepted to state universities. Two years into Idaho’s new program, 48 percent of the class of 2017 immediately enrolled in college after high school graduation.
Within a few years, other states began catching on. In 2017, South Dakota launched its “Proactive Admissions” program, offering high school seniors with sufficient test scores admission to the state’s public universities and technical colleges. In 2019, the Illinois legislature authorized funding to develop a pilot program for the class of 2021. (The pilot was never launched, according to Delaney, and Illinois lawmakers are still debating a proposal to fund the program.) Hawaii and Minnesota have adopted similar programs, and Connecticut is designing its own system as well. This year, the University of Michigan–Flint announced a direct admission partnership with six nearby high schools, and the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay became the first in its state to embrace direct admission from area schools.
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