Reflections from Early Adopters of Direct Admissions Policies

SHEEO
5 min readSep 25, 2023

By Sakshee Chawla, SHEEO senior policy analyst

Dr. Taylor Odle, assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with Sara Scudder, college and career access officer with the Idaho State Board of Education, and Wendy Robinson, assistant commissioner for programs, policy, and grants at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, presented lessons from the Direct Admissions Learning Community at the 2023 SHEEO Higher Education Policy Conference. The panelists shared an overview of the direct admissions project, including research findings, program implementation and changes, and strategies for data use. This blog highlights key reflections discussed at the 2023 SHEEO Higher Education Policy Conference that can serve other states considering direct admissions policies.

Despite Progress in Retention and Completion, Disparities in College Access Persist

Positive trends in the number of high school graduates enrolling in college have shifted discussions toward postsecondary retention and completion in recent years, but gaps in college access continue to be a strategic challenge facing higher education. Data from the High School Longitudinal Study suggests that 75% of high schoolers ultimately enroll in some form of postsecondary education, but disparities based on income and race reinforce well-documented research on the inequities faced by underserved student groups, including Black students, Latino students, and students from low-income circumstances. Seventy-one percent of Black students and 70% of Latinos ultimately enroll in some form of college in comparison to 77% and 90% of whites and Asians. The gaps in enrollment for students from middle and low socio-economic status are also clear: only 73% of those from middle socio-economic status and 59% from low socio-economic status enroll in college, compared to 92% of students from high socio-economic status.

Direct Admissions Simplifies the College Application Process

The college application and admission process has often been referred to as a “gauntlet” of unclear and uneven information points, with students facing multiple steps toward preparation, varying application and admission requirements, and administrative hurdles. These components of the college application and admission process rely heavily on social and cultural capital and, therefore, disadvantage underserved student groups.

Direct admissions — the practice of proactively guaranteeing college admission to high school seniors by leveraging preexisting K-12 academic performance or test scores — eliminates traditional college applications. Once admitted, students need to only “claim their place” and follow enrollment steps without binding enrollment requirements. Beyond reducing barriers to college, direct admissions has also been touted as a promising means to boost higher education enrollment and postsecondary degree attainment, particularly for underserved students, including historically underrepresented minoritized students, first-generation students, and students from low-income circumstances.

Lessons from Two States: Idaho and Minnesota

Idaho was the first state in the nation to launch its direct admissions system in 2015. The program was established to encourage more young Idahoans to obtain a professional certificate or accredited degree and promote a college-going culture. In the program, high school seniors automatically receive a letter admitting them to the state’s public postsecondary institutions based on a combination of high school grade point average (GPA) and SAT/ACT scores. Over the years, Idaho has observed that eliminating the SAT/ACT requirement and reducing the GPA threshold contributed to a more diverse group of students gaining access to higher education institutions participating in direct admissions. While the impacts on specific underserved groups have not yet been quantified, Idaho plans to continue monitoring the progress of its direct admissions program.

In 2021, Minnesota implemented its iteration of direct admissions to close the credential attainment gap between white students and underserved student populations. In Minnesota’s program, seniors on track to graduate from participating high schools received personalized communication that lists all participating in-state colleges and universities to which they are proactively admitted. Data from the program indicates that 47% of participating students identified as students of color and 29% of students were eligible for free and reduced lunch in the state.

Direct admissions may serve as a valuable, and arguably low-cost, tool to improve college application and enrollment by proactively guaranteeing college admissions to high school seniors, thereby reducing the role of social capital in influencing college admissions and reducing gaps in college access. While these principles of direct admissions can benefit any state, the examples of Idaho and Minnesota make clear that no two states have the same context. Idaho uses a centralized model where all higher education institutions participate in a direct admissions program, while Minnesota’s decentralized model identifies participating colleges and requires coordination between multiple K-12 student information system vendors. Although direct admissions is arguably a low-cost tool as it leverages preexisting student information on academic performance, existing data sharing and management systems play a critical role in determining whether it can be built on information most states already possess. Idaho’s existing data systems enable them to connect student data from K-12 to higher education, while Minnesota faces some challenges in engaging and developing contracts with K-12 student information vendors who are critical for matching students’ education records to eligibility criteria. Further, in addition to a select number of high schools and colleges participating in the program in Minnesota, students in the state still have to submit applications to colleges that may require additional materials such as essays and standardized test scores, which is different from Idaho’s program.

Although it is too early to know whether direct admissions will have an impact on degree completion and graduation outcomes, direct admissions offers solutions to a multitude of challenges facing higher education today.

References

High School Longitudinal Study (2009), National Center for Education Statistics.

“Direct Admissions: A Low-Cost Path to College Access,” Education Commission of the States, 2021.

“Direct Admissions in Minnesota: Final Evaluation Report,” Wilder Research, 2021.

Odle, T.K., & Delaney, J.A. (2022). You are admitted! Early evidence on enrollment from Idaho’s direct admissions system. Research in Higher Education, 63, 899–932. doi: 10.1007/s11162–022–09675-x.

Delaney, J.A., & Odle, T.K. (2022). Direct admissions: Proactively pushing students into college. In O.A. Poon, & M.N. Bastedo (Eds.), Rethinking college admissions: Research-based practice and policy (pp. 165–184). Harvard Education Press.

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