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In a recent article published in Inside Higher Ed’s "Admissions Insider" newsletter, some of our state’s college admissions staff and a high school counselor expressed reservations and misunderstanding about Idaho’s Direct Admissions program.

The Idaho State Board of Education has a stated goal that 60 percent of our state’s adult population between the ages 25 and 34 have some form of postsecondary certificate or degree by the year 2025. Right now, that figure is about 42 percent, which can be attributed in part to a distressing and stubborn low college-going rate among high school graduates. It is unlikely we can reach the goal, endorsed by Idaho lawmakers and education stakeholders, unless we are willing to embark on bold, innovative initiatives designed to remove barriers and encourage more students to further their education beyond high school.

Our Direct Admissions program is just three years old, but we are already seeing trends worth noting. The state board has found that the messaging in the Direct Admissions letters reduced the gap seen in immediate college enrollment between gender and socioeconomic status. Even more striking, nonwhite students who received the letter admitting them to all eight of Idaho’s postsecondary institutions actually enrolled in college at higher rates than white students who received a similar letter.

The state board also found that the Direct Admissions letter has a positive impact on first-generation students. As parental education level decreased, the student-reported impact of Direct Admissions letters increased. For students whose parents did not graduate from high school, 45 percent indicated that the Direct Admissions letters had a positive impact on their decision to attend college.

The criteria for admissions under the program as explained in the article was only partially correct. It is true that a student with a minimum grade point average of 3.0 is automatically admitted to all eight public institutions. Notably, this single criterion was adopted at the request of the institutions. However, for students with a GPA of less than 3.0, we use a sliding scale of the GPA multiplied by the SAT score (math and reading) or ACT equivalent -- every public high school junior in the state takes a college entrance exam as a high school graduation requirement. If the product of that equation is greater than or equal to 2,835, then a student is also admitted to all eight institutions. For example, a student with a 2.5 GPA and 1140 SAT would be admitted to all eight. All other students who don’t meet this benchmark are still admitted to six institutions.

While Idaho students are automatically admitted, they still have to “apply” for purposes of designating which institution they plan to attend. If a student decided to apply to more than one institution, the former application process entailed tediously populating much of the same information into each institution’s online application form, and for the privilege of that tedium, paying multiple application fees in most cases. This is an unnecessary duplication of effort and regressive expense for students since the State Board already holds significant student-level data in its longitudinal data system.

Apply Idaho, a single systemwide online application, was launched last year, which enables students to only have to enter their information once, select which institution(s) they want it sent to and then submit free of charge. There is no logical reason why we should make the process more complicated and expensive than necessary, especially when doing so would be a strong deterrence for first-generation and low-socioeconomic-status students. Last year, students using Apply Idaho submitted applications to an average of 2.5 institutions each.

The state board staff continues to work with the institutions to improve both the Direct Admissions program and the Apply Idaho website. For instance, the Direct Admissions letter sent out this fall is much simpler and easier to understand compared to the letter sent last year. The letter was revised based on input from the Idaho Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officials. We continue to seek feedback about the program from students, parents and school counselors, most recently joining college and university representatives at local and regional forums held at high schools throughout the state. Nevertheless, we are gratified by their stories about how Direct Admissions has helped students come to the realization that going to college really is possible for them.

Of course, the State Board isn’t just fixated on access -- it is also intensely focused on an aggressive completion agenda. Idaho has been a member of the Complete College America Alliance since 2010 and has implemented a number of the CCA Game Changer strategies: corequisite remediation, math pathways and guided pathways are all in various stages of deployment across the system. In addition, Idaho was recently named one of two states to join the CCA National Momentum Pathways Project. CCA will be investing approximately a half million dollars in technical support and services to scale evidence-based completion strategies across Idaho’s colleges and universities.

Disabusing cultural misconceptions about college and demystifying the college admissions and application process are core tenets of the Direct Admissions and Apply Idaho programs. Direct Admissions is sparking interest among high school seniors into thinking about earning a college degree or a career technical certificate. We are reaching students who might otherwise not apply to college and working with institutions to create incentives to better support students and to help them overcome obstacles, succeed in their course of study and graduate.

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