Automatic, Proactive, Direct — Oh My! Clarifying the Types of Admissions Redesign Strategies

Friday, October 20, 2023
Dylan Jacovo
Senior Associate

Traditional college admissions processes have been a barrier for too many students in accessing higher education; but innovative admissions processes are beginning to demonstrate an ability to reverse racial inequities in college access and mitigate enrollment declines — two issues top of mind for state and system leaders.

Over the last few years, and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, states and higher education systems have witnessed persistent stagnation or declines in college-going rates. In hopes of reversing the trends, policymakers and system leaders have worked to reimagine what the college admissions process can look like for students. 

Direct admissions—the innovative strategy of automatically admitting in-state high school seniors to participating colleges and universities based on predetermined academic criteria such as GPA, ACT/SAT scores, or class rank and directly notifying them of their admissions status through branded and targeted communications—has proven to be a relatively low-cost, low-touch strategy that has shown promising results in moving the needle on students’ college-going behavior. As I recently wrote about in “An Invitation to College: A State Leader’s Guide to Launching a Direct Admissions Initiative,” direct admissions practices have not only been shown to have a statistically significant increase on the number of applications students submit, but they have also had positive effects on a student’s probability of matriculation, as observed in studies on the effects of the nation’s first statewide direct admissions initiative in Idaho. While direct admissions alone won’t solve our nation’s college access problem, when supplemented with further efforts to support students, this strategy proves valuable in promoting long-term postsecondary success.

Yet, in this current era of interest in redesigning many components of an oftentimes bureaucratic admissions process—which can include everything from applications to admission to financial aid and matriculation—how can we begin to differentiate among the types of programs and initiatives out in the ecosystem? 

This differentiation is growing in importance as new admissions programs have started to share similar branding despite involving drastically different strategies. This can lead to hesitation, confusion, or mixed feelings about the potential implementation of these types of programs. Are these admissions initiatives likely to improve the probability of matriculation? Do they have targeted outreach campaigns to eligible students? Are promises of admissions tied to financial aid qualification? Are institutions required to reserve seats? It all comes down to what is in the recipe.

As I have studied the wide variety of programs across the nation seeking to simplify the admissions process for students, it is my belief that it is past time for the field to develop a typology that both clarifies and differentiates the host of different strategies from one another. Importantly, any sort of typology must be cognizant of differing state realities, especially in terms of higher education support and what can actually pass the state legislature. With any typology, we must also recognize that any program can also be modified, adjusted, or expanded to meet the ever evolving needs of students or the state. 

In an effort to support the field’s understanding of this evolving line of work, I want to offer some guiding clarification on the different types of existing admissions redesign strategies currently in motion around the country and what they have actually come to look like in practice. 

  • Direct Admissions Programs: The whole purpose of a direct admissions initiative, according to Taylor Odle—Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and leading scholar on the impact of direct admissions strategies on student college-going behavior—is for individual students to be proactively informed of their guaranteed admission via targeted communication strategies (e.g. branded admissions letters) and for the college-going process to be structurally simplified for students (e.g. via the development of a common and shorter application).
  • Guaranteed (also “Proactive” or “Automatic”) Admissions Programs: In guaranteed admissions initiatives, institutions of higher education adopt common practice(s) for proactively admitting students as a general admit. However, in these programs, students are still required to have the pre-existing knowledge that they have achieved satisfactory academic standing for admissions, because there is not a holistic and targeted communications strategy (i.e. no branded letters sent directly to students). Furthermore, students in these types of programs are still required to fill out a traditional, full-length college application to accept their admissions offer. Take, for example, Texas’ long-standing Top 10% Initiative. This program has explicit policies on the book for institutions to proactively admit students at their institutions if those students have met the academic qualifications necessary for admissions — in most cases, graduating in the top 10% of their high school graduating class. However, by the definition set above, this program falls short of being a direct admissions program because although seats are guaranteed for students, there is no structured communications or outreach campaign for students notifying them of their admissions status; the onus is placed upon school counselors and other adults in the school building to communicate this status to their students. Additionally, while Texas does have a common application system, ApplyTexas, the application students have to fill out for the purposes of guaranteed admissions remains structurally unchanged from a traditional traditional-length college application. 
  • Other: Notably, there are a host of admissions redesign strategies currently in the ecosystem that do not satisfy the criteria necessary for being a direct or guaranteed admissions program. In short, these programs can best be understood as strategies taken on by leaders to establish and make explicit universal ground rules for how a state or system wants to approach the admissions process moving forward. Absent additional innovations and structural changes to the application and admissions process specifically, these efforts will not have an effect on a student’s probability of matriculation and enrollment. Nevertheless, these efforts can in fact be a sound first step in getting institutional and state leaders on the same page. 

As we continue to see new admissions practices gain traction nationwide, it is important for the field to provide clarity around the host of existing approaches available for states and systems to take advantage of as it relates to changing admission processes to support student access to postsecondary. Clarifying definitions for common admissions strategies also makes room for a more robust set of evaluations to take place. Clear definitions will only strengthen the field’s ability to differentiate the host of emerging strategies to reimagine the college admissions process and allow leaders to better understand and identify the approach their state should take to produce a more equitable and diverse higher education system. 

If you’re interested in gaining new perspectives on the emerging practice of direct admissions, including how the practice has been designed, what outcomes it has produced, and considerations for policymakers debating the implementation of a direct admissions program in their state or system, check out the Campaign for College Opportunity’s October 2023 report, Direct Admissions: Reimaging College Applications to Promote Equity, authored by Taylor Odle, Ph.D.