Aug 22, 2023 - Economy

Students can get admitted to college without ever applying

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Students are being admitted to an expanding number of colleges without a human ever looking at their application.

Why it matters: States and companies offer direct admission in an effort to decrease barriers to accessing higher education. These immediate acceptance programs are based on quantitative factors like GPA and test scores.

How it works: Universities set GPA or test score thresholds for automatic acceptance, with different specifics through each direct admissions program.

  • The Common App, an undergraduate application portal used by more than 1 million students per year, uses GPA and test score data already in its system to pair students with partner universities whose marks they meet.
  • On Niche, a college ranking and review website, students set up a profile and express interest in schools. They immediately find out which they are accepted to, based on GPA requirements and all students receive a scholarship offer.
  • At least nine states provide direct admission to graduating high school seniors, piloted by Idaho in 2015.

The big picture: Direct admission foregoes some of the more time-consuming and expensive parts of the college application process, like essay writing, obtaining recommendation letters and application fees, all of which can be barriers to seeking a degree.

  • Schools that offer direct admissions typically have high acceptance rates.

Driving the news: Most recently, Niche has partnered with about 50 schools in a program that launched Tuesday to offer free direct admission to students, following pilot and beta runs that led to at least 40 enrollments at two institutions in the first school year.

  • In both trials, more than half of admissions were students from underrepresented backgrounds, said Niche CEO Luke Skurman.
  • Niche leverages AI in its suggestions of universities and programs to students as they start to narrow down their interests, he said.
  • The Common App also announced findings on Tuesday from its trial years with direct admissions. Students who were proactively informed of their guaranteed admission were 12% more likely to submit a college application overall and twice as likely to apply to the institution where they were offered direct admission, researchers said.
  • The impacts were larger among students of color, first-generation students and low-income applicants.

Flashback: Direct admissions began in 2015 in Idaho, where high school graduates were proactively admitted to public institutions.

  • More recently, companies have partnered with hundreds of colleges to offer these programs, said Taylor Odle, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Between the lines: With programs like these, admissions officers don't have to focus on getting applications in the door, said Odle, who co-led the Common App's pilot direct admissions programs. Rather, they can focus on outreach and recruitment to already admitted students.

Yes, but: It could be overwhelming for students, especially those who don't have much generational experience navigating higher education, to receive multiple matches, said Anita Manion, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

  • "We can get information overload, at which point, some of us shut down," she said.
  • Colleges should provide support to students admitted through venues like this to promote their success, said Manion, whose research focuses on the effects of public policy on equity.
  • "We have to think about what happens after a student gets accepted," Manion said. "How are they communicating the actual financing and financial liability?... How are the campus resources there once a student begins, to support them academically, to support their integration on campus?"

The bottom line: The Common App's recent findings agree. Direct admissions should be supplemented with further support to ensure students' success.

  • "This low-cost, low-touch intervention can move the needle on important college-going behaviors but is insufficient alone to increase enrollment given other barriers to access, including the ability to pay for college," Odle co-wrote in the Common App research.

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