A Wet Blanket on Idaho's Blanket Admissions

Some have praised Idaho's 2015 move to tell all qualifying high school seniors they are admitted to public colleges, but high school counselors and college admissions officers say details have been bedeviling.

October 1, 2018
 

SALT LAKE CITY -- Three years after Idaho automatically began telling high school seniors with strong grade point averages that they are admitted to the state's public colleges and universities, drawbacks have started to become apparent, a group of professionals who have been on the ground during the unfolding effort said Friday, speaking during a presentation at the National Association for College Admission Counseling's annual meeting.

That's not to say the program isn't without its merits. Automatic admission has led to more students believing they can succeed at attending college, for instance, and boosted enrollment at some four-year universities, they said.

But enrollment has dropped at some two-year colleges, admissions officers have had to make concessions on the type of data they can collect on college applications and offices are struggling with what they see as unfunded mandates. College admissions officers and high school counselors also worry that students feel they have less skin in the application game.

College enrollment offices report that it has become difficult to shape class profiles and that predicting enrollment levels has grown harder. They also worry about having the resources to support rising numbers of at-risk students.

“Is it doing what it was intended to do?” asked Kelly Talbert, director of admissions at Boise State University. “I think the jury is still out on that.”

The goal is not just to get more students to enroll in college, she said. It is to help more students complete their college education.

The initiative dates back to 2015, when Idaho started automatically telling high school seniors they were admitted to its public colleges under a program called Direct Admissions. Students with a 3.0 GPA or better as of the end of their junior years are accepted into all of the state's eight public two- and four-year colleges. Those not posting a high enough GPA can still gain acceptance to all eight if they score highly on standardized tests. Students who don't hit those markers are admitted to six public institutions -- but not the more selective Boise State University and University of Idaho.

A year after Direct Admissions' creation, many officials considered it to have worked, even if the practice came with a few hiccups. Chuck Staben, the University of Idaho president who came up with the idea for the program, said in 2016 that he considered it a success.

Enrollment at Idaho’s public colleges and universities had increased by 3.1 percent, to 74,632, in the fall of 2016. First-time resident freshmen enrolling right after high school spiked by 6.7 percent.

But some colleges saw larger gains than others. Boise State and the University of Idaho experienced enrollment increases, but others, like Idaho State University and the College of Southern Idaho, a community college, experienced enrollment declines.

High school students are notified in the fall by letter if they meet the criteria to be accepted into the state's public colleges the following year. But they still have to submit application materials after that in order to be able to enroll after graduation.

The state has continued to make significant changes to that application process for high school seniors since the automatic admission program was put in place. Last year it launched a single, four-step application allowing students to apply to multiple state colleges and universities at once. It also made it free for students to apply. And this year, two private colleges in Idaho have been added to that application.

Officials at the Idaho State Board of Education expected to mail out about 22,000 letters in September. Last year, 45 percent of high school seniors -- about 9,000 students -- submitted applications using the single application, applying to 2.5 institutions on average.

But panelists on Friday still reported uneven benefits for the state's colleges and universities.

Much of the growth in enrollment has been at Boise State, according to Ramon Silva, associate director for admissions at Boise State. Enrollment of students from Idaho at Boise State is up 28 percent since 2015, he said.

Enrollment of students deemed to have high ability -- those eligible for Boise State's honors college -- is up 47 percent. Enrollment of middle-achieving students is up 23 percent, and Latinx enrollment is up 15 percent.

The average GPA for Boise State students admitted from Idaho rose from 3.44 to 3.5. The average SAT score rose from 1090 to 1113.

“Truly, for Boise State, direct admissions has been the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Silva said.

It is a different story for “lower-band” students -- those who previously would not have been admitted without a petition. Enrollment of such students increased by 65 percent at Boise State between the fall of 2015 and fall of 2016. But their enrollment fell in the two subsequent years, almost to the level it was at before Direct Admissions.

They also struggled to post passing grades and stay on campus. They posted significantly lower retention rates than students from the middle band.

Overall, Idaho students aren't going to college in greater numbers, Silva said. More are staying in-state, though.

Of course, Boise State is a selective public institution that might be expected to balk at having admissions requirements imposed upon it. Silva acknowledged that “We're the one school whose admission standards were lowered with direct admissions.”

Still, he said that some of the state's other four-year colleges have seen their enrollment stay the same or dip over the last three years. And he was joined Friday by a panelist from a two-year college who voiced concerns about the automatic admissions.

The letter students receive in the fall telling them they are admitted to two- and four-year colleges diminishes the perceived value of a two-year education, said Dan Guthrie, admissions coordinator at the College of Southern Idaho.

Even after that letter arrives, students still have to fill out a college application. Guthrie also voiced concern that the new common application process for multiple Idaho institutions is only a few steps, which leaves students wondering if they actually applied for college.

“They almost don't believe that they just applied to college,” Guthrie said. “They think -- and they're right, and I agree -- that when you apply to college, it should feel important, it should be a little bit complicated. Check seven boxes and you're in seven schools? That's crazy, right?”

At the College of Southern Idaho, applications went up, admissions went up, but yield did not rise in lockstep, Guthrie said. Direct Admissions has meant more work processing applications without different results.

Students are taking more credits, Guthrie said. He attributed that to his college's orientation, though.

A high school counselor on the panel also had concerns about the letters students receive. The fall letters come across as “mumbo jumbo” to students, said Robbie Cupps, college and career counselor at Capital High School, a 1,350-student public high school in Boise where between 40 percent and 60 percent of students apply for free or reduced lunch.

Students and families often don't understand the important distinction that students are preadmitted but still have to fill out an application before they can attend college.

“Unfortunately, some things have gone awry, and so it hasn't done exactly what I believe it should do at the high school level,” Cupps said.

The preadmission letter is useful as a one-on-one tool that Cupps can use to launch a discussion with students about their college options, she said. It's a good motivational tool for high school juniors and sophomores, too. But it's not realistic to expect students and parents to understand it without additional help.

Nor has the letter helped to motivate students to complete the application process. Counselors in high schools remain the motivating factors, Cupps said.

Additionally, she worries about the stigma that could grow to surround the distinction between preadmitted students. Students can now compare letters to see if they received a letter of six or a letter of eight -- with the letters of six clearly signaling lower GPAs.

Cupps named one more challenge with which she struggles: Does a 3.0 GPA truly signal college readiness? Students with an Individualized Education Program, for students who need special education, may have high GPAs, at least above the 3.0 cutoff above which Direct Admissions only evaluates GPA. So might students who are learning English as a second language.

While many such students may indeed be college ready, evaluating only their GPAs likely means some who are not ready for college will get in and attend.

Nine other states have some version of automatic enrollment, by the panelists' count. But Idaho is the only one that uses a simple GPA cutoff of 3.0 for automatic admission without any other factors such as test scores.

Panelists seemed to agree that the Idaho State Board of Education had good intentions with the automatic admission effort -- hoping to encourage students to seek additional education. They suggested changes that they think could improve the program.

Among their recommendations: create a more robust admission methodology than just GPA and address underlying barriers to attending college, like financial aid availability.

“Is it doing what it was proposed to do?” asked Talbert, of Boise State. “At this point, I don't know that we can make a compelling case that it is. So can we talk about what additional pieces are needed?”

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