It’s been a year since the state of Idaho embarked on an ambitious experiment: directly admitting graduating high school seniors into Idaho’s public colleges and universities without requiring them to fill out an application.
For many institutions in the Idaho system, it worked.
Over all, enrollment at Idaho’s public colleges and universities rose 3.1 percent, to 74,632 enrolled students from 72,360. This comes after a volatile few years. Enrollment consistently increased from fall 2006 to fall 2012. In 2013, enrollment numbers dipped sharply, and the number of enrolled students has bounced up and down since then. The most recent bump was much larger than the only other enrollment increase in the past four years -- in 2014, enrollment only rose by 1.2 percent.
But with the direct admissions program, part of the state's larger campaign to get more Idahoans to think about their Next Steps after high school, the number of first-time, resident freshmen who enrolled immediately after high school jumped 6.7 percent from fall 2015 to fall 2016.
Boise State University saw the biggest boost, with an 8 percent increase in overall enrollment. The University of Idaho’s enrollment numbers rose 3.6 percent -- a reversal for the university, which before had seen falling enrollment since 2012.
“I consider the program a success,” said Chuck Staben, the University of Idaho’s president.
It was Staben’s idea to establish the direct enrollment program, an effort to boost the number of Idaho high school graduates who went straight to college instead of straight to career.
Idaho colleges have struggled to keep up with the rest of the nation in terms of the percentage of high school graduates who go directly to college. In 2010, the state ranked last. Although the rates have fluctuated a bit since then, they have remained low. In 2013, for instance, Idaho’s statewide going-on rate was 53 percent, while nationally, 65.9 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college. But Idaho isn’t the only state that must deal with this dilemma -- enrollment levels have lagged in much of the country since the post-recession postsecondary enrollment boom, according to the most recent figures available from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Staben attributes Idaho’s low enrollment rate in part to the state’s strong economy. While in October the national unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, Idaho’s was 3.3 percent. High school graduates could find jobs straight out of school and be paid instead of paying tuition. Many asked, “Why not?” Staben said.
Another reason why Idaho’s enrollment rates are lower than the national rate, according to Staben: those whose parents didn’t go to college are less likely to go to college themselves. They are unfamiliar with the application process, so they don’t apply. In Idaho, 25.4 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree, which is a bit lower than the national rate of 29.3 percent.
Staben’s intention with Idaho’s direct admissions program was -- quite literally -- to eliminate that barrier.
“We’ve done some postsurveying, and we’ve had responses saying, ‘I didn’t know I could go to college,’ and, ‘This changed my life,’” Staben said. “Thirty percent said receiving the letter made them more likely or much more likely to attend college.”
Idaho has a unique arrangement in which the State Board of Education not only oversees elementary and secondary schools but also acts as a Board of Regents for institutions of higher education. Thanks to that structure, coordinating a system where colleges and high schools had access to the student data -- necessary to make admissions automatic -- was relatively smooth.
Students who had a high school grade point average over 3.0 were directly admitted to all eight of Idaho’s public higher education institutions, including community colleges and four-year universities. Students with lower GPAs were admitted only to six public institutions (excluding the more selective Boise State University and the University of Idaho) unless they had high test scores.
As is true with any experiment, this initiative wasn’t without its hitches.
The primary challenge was sorting out the timing, said Blake Youde, chief communications and legislative affairs officer at the Idaho State Board of Education. Last year, because the initiative was approved in June, students received their acceptance letters in November, which didn’t allow students a long time to consider their college options and enroll. In addition, because of the expedited timeline, communication was lacking between the universities and high schools, said Staben. This year the universities mailed two letters, one in September and a second one in October.
The cost was minimal. Most of the money was spent on printing and mailing letters to approximately 20,000 high school seniors, which cost about $40,000, Youde said -- money that was already in the state budget. The department did not hire any new staff to work on the project.
“Most environments cause higher education institutions to compete rather than collaborate, and the colleges in Idaho are collaborating in a big way,” said Demi Michelau, vice president for policy analysis and research at the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education. “There are inherent risks in this program, because it involves trust between [the institutions].”
Indeed, not every college got the same boost as Boise State and the University of Idaho. Idaho State University’s enrollment dropped by about 100 students. The College of Southern Idaho, a community college, saw enrollment drop by over 500 students, although its number of enrolled first-time students who had graduated from high school in the past year rose from 617 last year to 643 now. Community college enrollments have lagged in many parts of the country, though.
The state board isn’t ready to say with certainty why enrollment dropped for these schools, according to Youde, but part of the reason for the drop was likely the greater number of college choices for students.
“We had these students who thought they were going to enroll in two-year colleges, and then they were admitted to a four-year college,” Youde said. “So we probably did move students that way.”
Chris Bragg, the dean of institutional effectiveness at Southern Idaho, speculates that the overall dip in enrollment could be because of several factors, including dual enrollment, which could muddle the data, and a strong economy in which Idaho residents think they are better off earning money than studying.
It’s also difficult to pinpoint the reasons for the increase in first-time students, said Bragg, because Southern Idaho began another high school outreach program last year, too. It send transition coordinators to local high schools to help students with the college application process.
Even data from the colleges that saw increasing enrollment aren’t as clean and simple as at first glance. Although the University of Idaho’s enrollment rose, the number of full-time students in fall 2016 actually dropped from last year, dipping from 9,183 to 8,872. Enrollment of part-time students increased, from 4,513 to 4,681.
Part of the reason for the drop in full-time students was because a larger class graduated in 2016, said Jodi Walker, director of communications at Idaho. And the rise in part-time enrollment includes a jump in the number of high school students who are taking dual-credit classes.
In fact, the number of first-time students did increase at the University of Idaho, from 1,588 last year to 1,660 this year -- a difference of 4.5 percent. Plus, first-year enrollment all over the state was up. Because of that, Staben, Youde and Michelau all call the first year of the initiative a success.
“It’s the ultimate student-centered initiative, and it removes barriers,” Michelau said. “And a second benefit is a benefit to the institutions. You can think of this as a collective recruitment tool for the institutions. I believe all boats will rise, ultimately.”
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