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Davis & Elkins College

Davis & Elkins College is a small institution (a little more than 700 students) in a beautiful part of West Virginia, surrounded by the Allegheny Highlands. Like most colleges, it admits most of those who apply. This year, the college admitted about 700 students of the 975 applicants, aiming for a class of 250 to 300.

In the fall, the college plans to consider some students who haven’t actually applied for admission at all. They will be students who have created profiles through Sage Scholars, which has offered a service since 1995 to help students afford college. This year, in addition to presenting students whom colleges might want to recruit to apply, Sage will also offer some of its several hundred members the chance to look at the profiles (which will contain the interests, grades and test scores of students who have them) and admit students directly.

Rosemary M. Thomas, executive vice president at Davis & Elkins, said, “I think it is a great way for students to explore all sorts of options.” One thing will be missing: “They aren’t going to get a rejection letter. It takes away the fear of failure.”

By creating a profile, “you are just saying ‘I’m interested in college.’”

Thomas said she could see admitting 25 to 30 students this way during the first year of the program, and more later. She doesn’t think it will totally replace traditional admissions—Davis & Elkins will likely keep that for West Virginia residents. As Thomas said, the college is known in the state but not well-known outside of it. The college will look for profiles of students who say they want to study in West Virginia or a similar environment, or those who value learning outdoors, or who want one of Davis & Elkins’ academic programs (even though they likely won’t have heard of the college).

Sage Scholars expects about 40 to 50 colleges to participate in the program during the first year. James B. Johnston, the president of Sage, said he doesn’t anticipate charging the students to participate, nor the colleges. He doesn’t charge either group to participate in his recruitment and scholarship programs. The money for the 700,000 students in his database comes from businesses. Employers pay to offer Sage as a benefit for all employees to help their children apply to colleges. Financial organizations join as well, for clients. Johnston says this means that his pool of students (not all of whom are high school seniors) thus have a characteristic many colleges seek: they are able to pay for all or a significant part of their college education. He expects that to be a major selling point for his 450 member colleges.

They are private colleges, but most admit a large percentage of their applicants. But the group as a whole includes Rollins College, Centre College, Loyola University New Orleans and the University of Rochester. It doesn’t include the Ivy League or similar institutions.

“Most of those colleges admit a huge percentage of those who actually apply,” said Johnston. Ultimately, he said his message for colleges is “why are you making them go through all this crap?”

Sage and Concourse

Sage is not the only player seeking to change admissions radically by eliminating applications.

Concourse is a company that started with international students but last year broke into the market of American students, focusing on Chicago. Its focus in the United States has been on low-income students. In the next year, it will expand to seven regions: New York City, Philadelphia, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Dallas, Houston and Atlanta (while keeping Chicago). In each of those areas, Concourse will identify colleges that serve low-income students and college counselors who will certify the accuracy of what students put in their profiles.

Joe Morrison, CEO of Concourse, said he hadn’t heard of Sage’s new effort, but “in general I’m supportive of any organization that’s simplifying and streamlining the college admissions process for students, regardless of their demographic. I believe proactive admission is an idea whose time has come, so I will not be surprised to see other organizations following in our footstep.”

The main differences between Concourse and Sage are the socioeconomic status of the students, and that the colleges participating in Sage are all private.

But both approaches challenge that traditional way that admissions has worked.

David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he hadn’t heard of Sage’s new efforts. But he said he thought it was only natural.

“The entry of additional players into a more student-centric method of ‘applying’ to college seems inevitable given that the pandemic has boosted new ways of thinking about reaching constituents and customers across the economy,” he said via email. “In the college admission context, our members are thinking more critically about how best to serve students and meet institutional needs, including retooling processes to facilitate a more effective way of matching supply with demand for higher education.”

NACAC is currently considering changes in the admissions process to make it more equitable and will convene a group to consider changes.

‘Absolutely Comfortable’

Steven M. Corey, president of Olivet College of Michigan, which is planning to participate, said the demographics of his applicant pool and enrolled students show the breadth of potential for the Sage idea. Despite Sage’s orientation toward wealthier applicants, more than half of Olivet’s students are eligible for Pell Grants, and more than half are first generation.

“I am absolutely comfortable with this approach,” he said.

In fact, Corey said he truly favors moving consideration for college admission to high schools. If a student took (and succeeded in) certain college preparatory courses, he could see colleges saying the students would automatically be admitted.

Robert Oliva, assistant vice president for enrollment management at St. Francis College, in New York, said he was waiting for details on the program from Sage, but he was inclined to participate.

Oliva said he views the application process as more about building relationships with students than about admitting students per se. (The college admitted 3,480 of the 4,200 who applied to be freshmen in the fall.)

He said he views the Sage idea as one that would allow St. Francis to work with students earlier in the school year, and he views that as a plus.

Not surprisingly, colleges that are having particularly good years in admissions (with the traditional system) are less interested in alternatives. Duquesne University, for one, is coming off a record year in admissions.

Joel Bauman, senior vice president for enrollment management, said via email he would be more comfortable with a “pre-admit” decision, rather than a decision to admit. Students could be told they are likely to be admitted if everything is verified and they continue to do at least as well as they have been doing. But he would like that assurance.

Still, Bauman said, “I am generally in favor of alternative and more transparent systems to promote such pre-college, college-going behaviors support programs.” He added, “I think that the ice was broken by such programs with an unofficial nod with the talent identification programs, the programs that identify, recruit and train prospects for preparation to be admitted to the top schools, Questbridge and Posse for example, and now these programs may open it up other populations such as the broad category of the middle class not oriented towards the highly selective groups of institutions.”

Public Relations

Richard Ekman, former president of the Council of Independent Colleges, recently joined the Sage board, and he thinks the idea will work. But he cautions not to expect dramatic change in the first year.

“I think many colleges have difficulty admitting to themselves how open their admissions selections really are. For those colleges, the pre-admit approach may have certain advantages in simplifying the process for students and families that we know are often befuddled by it,” he said. “Often these are the first-gen and low-income students who are eagerly sought after by colleges but who can easily fall by the wayside and not complete and submit their applications for admission.”

He said Sage’s approach is “prudent,” in that it will “start with a small number of institutions where the college and Sage have a history of mutual support. “

Ekman added, “The downside, of course, is that colleges typically like to brag about how selective their admissions processes are. It will take careful PR for a college and Sage to describe this initiative in a way that prevents others from characterizing it as a lowering of standards.”

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