The University of Wisconsin System is planning to launch a direct admissions program for eligible Wisconsin high schoolers starting next summer, as it seeks to reverse enrollment declines over the past decade and boost its graduation rates.
UW System to launch direct admissions initiative
System President Jay Rothman announced the initiative during the UW Board of Regents meeting Thursday. The System plans to send out the first offer letters to students in July 2024.
Under the program, Wisconsin high school students would be able to sidestep the traditional college application process and instead be automatically admitted to one or more System schools for which they qualify. Qualification would be based on academic performance, taking aspects such as grade-point average and class rank into consideration.
Ten of the System’s 13 universities have opted into the program, Rothman said, with all but UW-Madison, UW-La Crosse and UW-Eau Claire participating. The decision whether to participate was left to each university, with the ability to join the program in the future, Rothman added.
UW-Green Bay already has a direct admissions program in place for graduates of Green Bay Area Public Schools.
Rothman said he hopes the program promotes college as an option for students, especially those who qualify but may not see themselves as having the potential.
“I hope that direct admissions will not only grow enrollment but also streamline the admissions process and help expand the number of Wisconsin residents with a UW degree,” he said.
The first phase of the program will involve reviewing students’ records to see whether they meet the System’s standards set by the Regents for admission. From there, students would be admitted to individual universities based on a school’s own criteria and could attend any of the universities for which they qualify.
Direct admissions is just one of the System’s initiatives to try to drive higher enrollment since Rothman took office last summer. Last fall, the System pursued a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) campaign, citing Wisconsin’s ranking as 38th in the nation for participation. School officials also said they’d continue with plans to launch the Wisconsin Tuition Promise last-dollar tuition grant program this fall, despite the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee not including it in the final state budget.
Rothman also said the System will push universities to make it easier for prospective students to understand college costs, by simplifying language and explaining financial aid.
“We also hope that this initiative, combined with direct admissions, will allow more students to enroll and stay at our UW universities,” he said.
The Regents formed a task force in August 2022 to study the feasibility of direct admissions, which has already either been piloted or implemented in states such as Minnesota, Idaho and Hawaii.
While System enrollment stayed fairly steady this fall with a few hundred more students, it’s a small reversal of long-standing trends. Nearly 20,000 fewer students were enrolled last fall than in fall 2014, a decrease of about 10%. A few state universities have defied the trend, including UW-Madison, which has seen enrollment increase by nearly 15% during the past five years.
UW-Platteville, UW-Whitewater and UW-Stevens Point all anticipated gains of about 3.4% this fall — a few hundred more students on their campuses this fall — and UW-Madison and UW-Green Bay expected to see growth of 1.2%. UW-Madison topped 50,000 students for the first time, based on counts released earlier this week.
Much of the System’s enrollment stability can be attributed to a 3% increase in freshman enrollment across universities. Universities with decreasing enrollment are expecting reductions between 25 and 285 students. UW-Oshkosh will see the largest percentage drop, about 1.7%, coming at a time when the university is looking to erase a $15.1 million budget shortfall.
The enrollment declines have hit the System particularly hard, as increasing enrollment was one of the few ways universities could guarantee seeing funds increase during that time, as the state Legislature froze tuition for a decade and often cut state aid to the System.
Earlier this year, a GOP-sponsored bill would have given direct admission to UW-Madison for any Wisconsin high school student deemed to be in the top 5% of their class amid complaints that supposedly high-achieving students were being denied admission, prompting them to look out of state for comparable institutions.
The System is aiming to increase its number of graduates to 41,000 annually by 2028, up from about 37,000 now. It has an 81.3% retention rate from freshman to sophomore year, based on fall 2021 enrollment.
Encouraging more high school students to attend college through direct admissions is only one aspect of increasing the number of graduates, though, Rothman said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal on Thursday. The System also needs to focus on improving its retention rates, he said, as well as find ways to reach the 700,000 people in Wisconsin who have earned some college credits but did not finish a degree. Even bringing just 10% of those people back would help the System meet its goal.
As for how much freshman growth the System would like to see in order to meet its graduation goal, Rothman said there’s no specific target.
“We are trying to open up avenues to make it clearer and easier for people to think about college,” he said.