The Link Between Student Lists and Direct Admissions: Pros, Cons, and Policy Implications

SHEEO
7 min readApr 19, 2023

Written by: Lynneah Brown and Rachel Burns, State Higher Education Executive Officers Association

A group of college students carrying backpacks walk down a set of stairs.

Direct admissions is a new approach to college admission that enables postsecondary institutions to make admission offers to prospective high school graduates without having to navigate the many obstacles of the traditional admissions process. This new approach is meant to minimize barriers to college access for more graduating high school students while supporting college admissions criteria. One of the ways institutions obtain information on prospective high school graduates is by purchasing student lists, but this practice can perpetuate instead of mitigate admissions disparities. Learning more about direct admissions, student lists, how direct admissions and student lists are connected, and the policy implications for both, will better support the aim and design of streamlined admissions policies and programs.

There are several different forms of direct admissions programs. Some programs operate through a state higher education agency, which sets thresholds for acceptance at state colleges and universities, then matches eligible students with institutions. These students receive information about their eligibility for direct admission and are instructed to complete application materials for institutions of their choice (D’Orio, 2023). Other programs operate through a third party (e.g., Concourse Global) that manages student portfolios of performance and academic interests, then matches students with qualifying institutions. Another variation of the program is more accurately termed proactive admission, in which students who meet a minimum threshold are automatically admitted to participating institutions, with a stipulated percentage of institution enrollment that must be admitted in this way (Callahan, 2021).

These programs have gained popularity in recent years as a mechanism to retain high-achieving students in state, attract students who may otherwise choose not to attend college, and expand the recruiting pool to reach underrepresented students (Jaschik, 2022). For institutions seeking to participate, an important determinant is the access to lists of students eligible for admission. Often, institutions are responsible for reaching out to and recruiting these students through communications campaigns. One potential source of data that institutions can use to identify eligible students is a student list from the College Board, ACT, or other vendors. However, access to these lists is inconsistent and unregulated, and private proprietary vendors can charge prices that are unaffordable for some institutions while creating a disparity in awareness and options for graduating high schoolers.

Student Lists

Student lists include contact information and other data (e.g., zip codes, test scores and high school GPA)[1] of prospective high school graduates that colleges and universities can use for recruitment (Salazar et al., 2022). Universities purchase student lists from the College Board and ACT, two of the largest student list vendors, as well as other private proprietary vendors that create student lists (Salazar et al., 2022). Research has shown that there have been some positive outcomes using student lists as well as some unintended consequences of selling lists to institutions for recruitment (Jaquette et al., 2022).

Pros

  1. Student lists have large positive effects on college access outcomes for students each year.
  2. Due to new sources of student list data, there has been a surge of investment in educational technology, which has transformed the student list business.

Cons

  1. Student lists disproportionately exclude underrepresented groups, such as communities of color and low-income and rural communities.
  2. Non-test takers are excluded from the student list databases.
  3. The search filters allow for institutions to select which prospect’s information they want to purchase.
  4. Test-optional and test-free admissions policies will produce a conflict as colleges and universities will not be able to identify and contact prospective students.

Using Student Lists in Direct Admissions

Student lists are a potential source of data for direct admissions programs, since colleges and universities can purchase student lists from the College Board and ACT to determine which students to offer direct enrollment or admission. There have been some policy concerns regarding the use of student lists for admissions purposes. One of the main concerns is the purchasing of these student lists. According to Jaquette et al. (2022), there should be a public option student list product that is free to all institutions, with the goal of equity and opportunity for students. The purpose of this public option is to prevent institutions from targeting certain groups of prospective students through the use of search filters. (Jaquette et al., 2022). Since search filters are relatively expensive, institutions may choose to select certain groups of students using search filters, which can cause continuous equity gaps.

As colleges and universities pay for targeted prospects, one of the unintended consequences is the exclusion of students from underrepresented groups and non-test takers. While using student lists for directly admitting students seems like a good idea because student lists have been shown to have a positive effect on college access, institutions should consider how best to use student lists with the goal of closing the equity gap for underrepresented students and non-test takers.

Policy Implications and Recommendations

One of the stated goals of direct admissions programs is to increase access to postsecondary education for students who would otherwise not attend college as well as historically underrepresented students. Because institutions and third-party vendors have the option to limit the students included in the list (e.g., only students with a particular SAT score, GPA, or zip code), institutions may not necessarily target and expand college access to a broader representation of students.

Moreover, student lists are also sold by private proprietary organizations and may be prohibitively expensive for some institutions. Some community colleges and technical schools may not have the financial flexibility to purchase these lists. Thus, although these institutions may be viable options for students who would otherwise not attend college, they may be priced out of the use of student lists in direct admissions programs.

The solution to these concerns with student lists is to expand the option for free, public access to student lists (Jaquette et al., 2022). While private proprietary organizations may be less likely to willingly provide these data, state higher education agencies, state boards of education, nonprofit national policy organizations, or philanthropic organizations may be able to coordinate the creation of a database that is accessible to institutions unable to afford the proprietary, high-cost lists offered by private organizations. In addition, it is important that states develop their own lists based on state longitudinal data systems — which contain data on course grades and contact info — and use these data to determine eligibility for direct admissions and then as a means of contacting students informing them of their eligibility.

Importance and Conclusion

Student lists represent an opportunity to expand existing direct admissions programs to reach more students, institutions, and states in the following ways:

  1. Student lists help expand college access for prospective students. If student lists are linked with the existing different forms of direct admissions programs, this will allow more students, many of whom may not have applied to a college, to receive information about potential offers or to be automatically admitted to a higher education institution.
  2. Free student lists can help close the equity gap in college admissions. Free student lists help higher education institutions eliminate prospective student bias. Currently, institutions must pay for information on each student included in a student list. This allows colleges to be more selective in the students they choose by using the student filters feature to select potential students. Free student lists will remove that bias and provide more students with the option to be directly admitted to a college.

State agencies can assist in the provision of student-level data through the creation of a longitudinal data system that follows students through the primary and secondary education systems. As high school graduates prepare to enter postsecondary education, state agencies can assist institutions by providing free lists of students eligible for recruitment and direct admission.

[1]Lists by the College Board do not include test scores and high school GPA but can be inferred by the filters used, e.g., by student names.

Acknowledgements

SHEEO thanks The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) and their partners from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Arizona, as the SHEEO medium post was influenced by their three series of reports explaining and analyzing student lists.

The following partners that worked with TICAS are below:

● Ozan Jaquette, assistant professor, UCLA

● Karina Salazar, assistant professor, University of Arizona

● Crystal Han, data scientist, UCLA

● Patricia Martin, doctoral student, UCLA

Sources

Callahan, J. (2021). States with automatic or guaranteed college admissions policies. (Report №2021-R-0077). Office of Legislative Research: Objective Research for Connecticut’s Legislature.

https://www.cga.ct.gov/2021/rpt/pdf/2021-R-0077.pdf

D’Orio, W. (2023). The direct admission trend: How states, schools, and students are working to flip college enrollment. The Successful Registrar, 22(12), 1–9.

Jaquette, O., Salazar, K., & Han, C. (2022). Student list policy: Problems, regulations, and a solution. TICAS. https://ticas.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Student-list-policy_problems_regulations_a_solution.pdf

Jaquette, O., Salazar, K., & Martin, P. (2022). The student list business. TICAS. https://ticas.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/The-Student-List-Business_-Primer-and-Market-Dynamics.pdf

Jaschik, S. (2022, October 24). Direct admissions takes off. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2022/10/24/direct-admissions-takes

Salazar, K., Jaquette, O., & Han, C. (2022). Geodemographics of student list purchases. TICAS. https://ticas.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Geodemographics-of-Student-List-Purchases_A-First-Look.pdf

--

--

SHEEO

Helping states develop and sustain excellent systems of higher education.