As Enrollment Lags, Colleges Send Acceptances to Students Who Haven't...

Higher Education

As Enrollment Lags, Colleges Send Acceptances to Students Who Haven't Applied

Students are twice as likely to take steps toward enrollment at a college that offers them direct admission, according to a new, national Common App study.

By Emma Davis     Aug 23, 2023

As Enrollment Lags, Colleges Send Acceptances to Students Who Haven't Applied

High school seniors across the country endure months of suspense as they await the arrival of college admissions decisions. In December, it's early decision, closely followed by early action. By mid-March, regular offers begin to roll in.

This June, there was a new round of news for some high school seniors — one they weren’t even expecting.

The State University of New York mailed roughly 125,000 high school students letters offering them direct admission to their local community college starting this fall. All students had to do to secure a spot was provide a little bit of personal information and enter the code “ADMIT” into a simplified form.

It’s an example of the streamlined admissions practices that colleges across the country are using to combat the ongoing problem of low student enrollment.

The effort in New York, known as direct admission, comes after SUNY has seen an overall enrollment decline of about 21 percent since 2012. For the system’s more than two dozen community colleges, the decline has been nearly 35 percent. These declines, paralleled by declines across the country, steepened particularly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. While SUNY’s and national enrollments appear to be stabilizing as of this past spring, researchers expect this to be a return to the pre-pandemic trend rather than a turnaround.

Nationally, the Common Application has piloted direct admission across multiple states. Results from the experiments, made public this week, show significant increases in the likelihood that a student who receives an offer of direct admission will signal intent to enroll.

Research shows that direct admission appears to be particularly effective at boosting enrollment for non-selective institutions, suggesting SUNY’s plan for community colleges may be well-targeted.

However, experts say, while direct admission has proven helpful for college access, that’s only one of the barriers students face to actually enrolling in higher education.

Making College the Default

While SUNY has called its plan “automatic admission,” it is more so a “direct admission” plan, according to Taylor Odle, assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied these plans in multiple states.

Automatic, sometimes called “guaranteed,” admission programs set a threshold for admission — for example, a requirement that a student have a certain GPA. But direct admission programs set that threshold and then take additional steps by proactively communicating it to students, typically along with personalized information about their college options and what they need to do to claim their place on campus.

Direct admission is not about lowering the bar for admittance at community colleges, said Tom Brock, director of the Community College Research Center, which conducts research to strengthen opportunities and outcomes for students. Rather, it is a means of raising awareness of college options and simplifying the admissions process.

Most community colleges are open access institutions, meaning almost anyone who applies is admitted. But prospective college students, especially those who may be the first in their families to attend college, often do not distinguish between open access and selective institutions when considering whether to apply to college, Brock said.

Much like with retirement programs, where those that require employees to opt out rather than opt in yield higher participation rates, Brock sees direct admission as switching the default. Now, high school graduates in New York will have to actively turn down pursuing college.

Ben Castleman, associate professor of public policy and education at the University of Virginia, sees direct admission as a default shift, too, but also in a psychological sense. Regardless of whether the student thinks it, colleges are telling them they are college material.

“Sometimes very small changes to the decision-making environment that lead students to change how they think about colleges as an option, whether they could get in, whether they belong, or just learning more about colleges, can result in bigger downstream changes in behavior than would be expected given the actual size of the decision change,” Castleman said.

Outcomes of Direct Admission Experiments

Idaho was the first state to adopt a statewide direct admission system in 2015, after the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems found it had the lowest college-going rate of all states in 2010. Since the admissions change, every high school student in Idaho on track to graduate has been automatically admitted to a set of public higher education institutions, with no application or fees attached.

As a result, first-time enrollments rose 4 to 8 percent per campus, or 50 to 100 students per campus on average, according to a study conducted by Odle and Jennifer Delaney, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Now, there is national data available from the Common Application’s direct admission pilot, which found students offered direct admission were significantly more likely to take initial steps to enroll in college compared to those who were not.

In one of the largest randomized controlled trials in the higher education literature to date, also conducted by Odle and Delaney, nearly 32,000 students were randomly assigned to either receive a direct admission offer with an application fee waiver or no contact during the 2021-22 application cycle. Six four-year public and private institutions of various sizes (Montclair State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Middle Tennessee State University, Fisk University, Marymount University and George Mason University) agreed to participate in this study, which used information students submitted when creating a Common App account to determine who qualified for direct admission.

If students met the residency requirement and GPA threshold set by a given institution, Common App notified them in January 2022 of their guaranteed spot and directed them to use a code that gave them access to a simplified admission form, similar to SUNY’s direct admission process.

The almost 18,000 directly admitted students were nearly twice as likely to “apply” (submit the simplified application) to the institution where they were offered direct admission. They were also 12 percent more likely to submit any college application, suggesting direct admission opens up the college-going pathway more generally.

Direct admission impacted some of these students more than others. Racial minorities, first-generation students and low-income students were even more likely to “apply” when provided an offer of direct admission.

For example, George Mason University, a large public four-year institution in Virginia, saw applicants from new areas when it offered direct admission, said dean of admissions Alan Byrd.

“A lot of our students from the state of Virginia particularly come from Northern Virginia and the Richmond area,” Byrd said, “but we were excited to see applications from rural areas of Virginia, where we don't have the same presence.”

Common App letter
An example of a direct admission letter.

These latest results are part two of a larger, multiyear pilot program from Common App. During its first year, in March 2021, a smaller sample size of students were directly admitted to three historically Black colleges and universities. This first year saw students four times more likely to “apply” after receiving a letter of direct admission.

The third year of the pilot, when about 33,000 students were directly admitted to 13 institutions in the 2022-23 application cycle, found that directly admitted students were 2.3 times more likely to "apply.”

While these increased “application” rates hold across the multiple years of the study, Odle and Delaney assessed enrollment outcomes for the first time using the 2021-22 data and National Student Clearinghouse records. (It is too early to assess impacts on enrollment for the third year, as these students would be enrolling for this upcoming fall.)

The researchers found that, while students were responsive to direct admission offers, the increase in signaled intent to enroll did not translate to actual enrollment gains. Essentially, there were no enrollment gains from direct admission, although this is based on an already high baseline for enrollment among Common App users. The students in the sample still enrolled in college overall (84 percent), just not necessarily in the institutions that offered them direct admission as a result of that effort.

In Idaho, while enrollment increased overall due to direct admission efforts, these gains were almost entirely concentrated at two-year, open access institutions, where all students were proactively admitted, compared to at four-year institutions, where students needed to meet a higher threshold for admittance based on grade-point average and standardized test scores.

These combined results suggest that two-year, open access institutions, like New York’s community colleges, are best primed to achieve increased enrollment results from direct admission.

“Direct admissions is a policy targeted at getting students on the college-going pathway,” Odle said, as opposed to supporting those students who are already likely to enroll in higher ed.

Direct admission in Idaho had essentially no impact on the enrollment of low-income students (and did not yield data to assess impact based on student race or first-generation status). This was not necessarily surprising, Odle said, because the college-going population will start to mirror the general population when everyone is admitted, as was the case in Idaho.

However, Odle qualified, “This is likely also because direct admissions only targets one barrier to enrollment — searching, applying, administrative tasks, etc. — but many more stand in the way to matriculation.”

States across the country have experimented with direct admission, including Minnesota, Hawaii, Washington, and South Dakota (although this last program is no longer in operation after being discontinued during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the state suspended administering the assessment it used as its admission threshold). Some states have taken initial interest — including Illinois, which passed a related bill but has not yet implemented it — or will begin efforts on a similar timeline to SUNY — including Connecticut, Georgia and Wisconsin starting this fall.

While states like Texas and California have plans that admit students whose academic performance puts them in a top percentage of their graduating class to a set of selective public higher ed institutions, Odle argues those are not direct admission because they still require students to know their ranking and apply.

“It’s useless for there to be an automatic or guaranteed threshold if students and families don’t know about it or don’t know what they’re supposed to do to enroll,” Odle said, “even if they’re ‘guaranteed’ a spot.”

Boosting Community College Access

The SUNY initiative is New York’s first statewide attempt at direct admission. It was launched as part of the governor’s 2023 State of the State agenda.

Direct admission is now available for 29 SUNY colleges — all of its community colleges aside from the Fashion Institute of Technology, because FIT is highly selective, said Holly Liapis, SUNY press secretary.

These direct admissions exclude students who live in New York City.

“The direct admissions program matched students by their home ZIP code to the closest local community college,” Liapis said. “SUNY campuses have the largest geographic service areas outside of the city, which is why NYC was not included in this pilot year.”

In a separate but parallel initiative, the City University of New York has partnered with New York City Public Schools to send personalized letters this fall to the approximately 65,000 seniors expected to graduate from city high schools during the 2023-24 school year. CUNY’s effort stops short of direct admission, but its partnership with NYCPS is intended to make sure students who apply have college and career advising within their high school, a CUNY spokesperson said.

Although distinct, the efforts share a similar goal: to make sure every high school graduate in New York knows there is a place for them in the state’s colleges.

SUNY letter
An example of a direction admission letter.

Many New York community colleges were already doing local outreach to encourage enrollment, and a few began direct admission last school year through partnerships with their local high schools ahead of SUNY’s announcement, including Westchester Community College just north of New York City and Columbia-Greene Community College farther north up the Hudson River.

Westchester and Columbia-Greene are seeing higher applicant numbers compared to this time of year historically. Christopher Westby, Westchester’s registrar, and Matthew Green, dean of enrollment management at Columbia-Greene, attribute this to having targeted students in the fall through their individual partnerships, as opposed to SUNY’s June letter campaign.

SUNY’s outreach to students at the end of the school year, as opposed to earlier in the college application process, is a concern among some community college leaders and researchers because many students have already settled on post-graduation plans by then.

Liapis, SUNY’s press secretary, said that while SUNY recruits students to enroll at all times of year through college fairs and waiving application fees for certain timeframes, “having the mailing in June as students are graduating is another opportunity to remind students who have not already accepted admission at a four-year college that there is a spot at our community colleges.” SUNY will evaluate the timing after the pilot year, she said, as well as conduct a year-end review by consulting with campuses to review enrollment data.

Westby and Green cautioned that direct admission efforts may have expedited the typical spike in applications in August, meaning enrollment could level out come the fall. Some other colleges, including Nassau Community College on Long Island, have also seen enrollment trend upward for the fall, although the reasons for this are likely multiple. For others, such as Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh and Herkimer County Community College in the Mohawk Valley region, new student enrollment remains flat.

Even so, community college leaders still see a benefit to having students admitted earlier than usual. It allows for advising to start earlier, including explaining financial aid options and planning academic and intended career paths. Early consultations with any institution may be a useful way to help students find a good college option even if the college giving the advice is not the right fit.

“We want to be that local resource for these students,” Green said, “whether or not they enroll with us.”

More Than Admission Is Required

Cost has consistently been cited as the top reason for not enrolling in college, and researchers have found automatic and direct admission programs to be most effective when paired with supports to help students overcome other barriers to college access, such as financial aid.

SUNY’s direct admission letters mentioned financial aid and New York-specific assistance and scholarships. CUNY similarly plans to include financial aid information in its personalized letters to students. While financial assistance programs can cover most, if not all, expenses related to community college, if students do not know what aid is available to them or how to complete the paperwork necessary to receive it, the barrier remains.

Nudging can help. Castleman from the University of Virginia found that text reminders about application status and assistance improved completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and college matriculation. On average, early FAFSA filers are awarded more financial aid, so early filing may be a mechanism for improved college access, too.

However, he said, “I'm pretty persuaded that our most effective interventions are not ones that stop at text message reminders or even technology-based advising, but ones that try to foster sustained, in-person advising and support.”

One example is Bottom Line, a college advising program that operates in New York and other states to provide individualized advising to students before their senior year. In a randomized trial, students offered Bottom Line support were 23 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within four years after high school relative to the control group that was not offered Bottom Line guidance.

If direct admission is not accompanied by other advising supports, there is also concern about “undermatching,” which is when a student's academic credentials would allow them access to a more selective higher education institution than the one they actually choose, said Joshua Wyner, founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.

Many students are reluctant about their abilities. In a 2023 report from the education consulting firm EAB, 26 percent of more than 20,000 high schoolers answered that fears about “whether I’ll be successful in college” were a top reason to not enroll. Research shows that undermatching is most likely to be the case for students from low-income families and those whose parents do not have a college degree.

Given this risk, Odle and other higher education researchers see a need to expand SUNY’s direct admission to four-year colleges in order to improve bachelor’s degree attainment.

SUNY currently offers guaranteed admission for transfers if a student graduates from a SUNY or CUNY two-year college with an associate degree, but students must still go through the application process — it is not a direct admission. And some SUNY campuses have joint admissions. For example, the Binghamton Advantage Program allows students taking classes at SUNY Broome Community College to live on the Binghamton University campus with an opportunity to transfer to Binghamton after one or two years.

Odle and others have yet to assess graduation rates or bachelor’s degree attainment following direct admission. It is also unknown whether pursuing college has left participating students with debt they otherwise may not have had, Odle added, especially given that two-year colleges have the lowest completion rates out of higher education institutions and fewer resources to support students throughout college.

The sweet spot, so to speak, of direct admission remains arguable.

“If you only give direct admissions to students with a 3.7 GPA, you're not going to do anything, because they're already going into college,” Odle explained. “But if it's too low, also, you may not do anything, because maybe students aren't going to go to college regardless of simplifying [processes] and getting financial aid.”

However, he added, despite these limitations, “the case is closed now” that proactive outreach, a simplified admission form and fee waivers work in getting students past the application barrier.

The next version of direct admission — what Odle calls “direct admission 2.0” — needs to get students over enrollment hurdles and beyond.

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