What if you could apply to a college in your state knowing that you would be guaranteed a spot?

That’s what the Common App is exploring this year with a full launch of its direct admissions program. Since 2021, the nonprofit member organization—through which students can apply to more than 1,100 colleges and universities, including Ivy League schools—has piloted this program aimed at motivating more first-generation, low-income students to apply to and enroll in college, said Jenny Rickard, CEO of the Common App.

Students fill out applications through the Common App and are notified of schools within their state that offer direct admission for which students are eligible. Once they submit the form, they know they have a spot secured and then can decide to enroll or keep applying elsewhere.

By Nov. 7, more than 200,000 students will receive direct admission offers from 70 colleges and universities in 28 states this year.

Rickard spoke with Education Week about the reasoning behind such a program, and the benefits she sees in expanding it to more students. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did the Common App pilot this program in 2021?

We were motivated by an initiative that the state of Idaho had embarked upon. They were seeing that students weren’t necessarily continuing on from high school to in-state colleges at the same rate, and so they worked within their own system to identify students who were graduating from high school, letting them know—because they had the data at the state level—that based on their GPA and test scores, that they could go to University of Idaho or Idaho State. And all they needed to do was go fill out this form. So it was this idea of being proactive, not just with stating admission criteria … but actually saying, “This is how you do that.”

There’s a narrative out there, that you can’t get into college. And this is really an effort to change that narrative. That access to higher education is not a scarce opportunity, but an abundant opportunity.

Our role as a nonprofit membership association is to remove barriers to access for students, and one of the big barriers is the fear of rejection and that narrative that you can’t go to college. How do we right away address it, and help the students who sometimes are the most fearful of rejection or moving forward, have that inspiration to pursue their dream?

Jenny Rickard, CEO of the Common App

How does the program work?

This year, it’s open to seniors or students who are planning to enroll as a first-year applicant, first-year student in the fall of 2024. So a student will need to identify and add their information, their address, where they live, academic information, and then potentially some of the family background. Colleges have given us their GPA thresholds, so they are open to admitting students over a certain GPA or maybe within a range. [They] also can provide us with a capacity, like they only want to make 1,000 direct admission offers.

We then mine that data for the institutions in that state and look at all the students [who input their information in Common App]. We are the ones basically sending the message to the applicant that based on their self-reported information, these are the institutions in their state that they could pursue a direct admission offer from. And all they need to do is click here, and then add the school to their “my colleges” list, and then submit whatever the requirements are for that institution and press submit. The big difference [between early admission processes] is you’re filling out that application knowing you’re getting admitted.

We’re focusing on students who are underrepresented relative to the population in Common App. So it’s basically low- and middle-income students and first-generation college students that we’re focused on. And part of that is, we’ve developed a moonshot goal for ourselves at Common App. After looking at the data of students who apply to over 1,000 colleges and universities, public and private, in Common App, 55 percent of the applicants are from the top income quintile. And 70 percent are above the national median income, and 30 percent below. We have a goal to close our equity gap in students pursuing post-secondary opportunities through Common App, and so are focused in particular, on populations of students who don’t always get to a four-year institution.

We’ve done some user research about where students get stressed out or where they might have difficulty in the application process. A number of years ago we found that the most stressful moment for students was pressing the “submit” button in Common App because it’s now sending your information off to this institution, and you have no idea how they make decisions, but you know that they are going to judge you. And somehow your self-worth is being questioned, or your worthiness is being questioned.

Particularly for students who might have that greatest fear of continuing in the process, how do we say to a student right away, “Hey, you’re in Common App, that’s great, and you already have options and we want you to see those options, and one of these options might be the great place for you and now you know you’re in.” But it also might inspire you to say, “Hey, maybe I can take a look at other other opportunities as well, that aren’t necessarily direct admission.”

What have been the pilot results?

We compared the students who were receiving direct admission offers to a control group of students who did not get those offers. We found that students who were underrepresented minority students—Black, Latinx, Indigenous students—were more likely to take the offer to actually pursue one of these direct admission offers than were white students. And same based on income levels: First-generation college, low-income students were more likely to take that offer. What we also found, though: There wasn’t much of a difference between the control group and treatment group in terms of students actually enrolling at the school.

But what we also saw was that the students in the treatment group behaved differently than the control group in terms of the number of schools that they applied to. So they actually applied to more schools than those in the control group, helping us see the impact of “Oh, OK, maybe I can apply to some other places.” And we also did qualitative research, where students said things like, “I was so proud to get this offer that it made me more confident about continuing in this process.”

In the second pilot we did, 18,000 students received offers, and I believe that was to six different schools. And [830] ended up accepting, they said, “Yeah, I want to get a direct admission offer.” And that’s about [4.5] percent. So you might say, well, that’s not very many. From my vantage point, if it’s making a difference for [4.5] percent, great. And then [208] enrolled, so 25 percent of those students who were offered admission, ended up enrolling at one of the direct admission schools. And for me, that’s actually a pretty significant yield, if you will, on an admission offer for students.

Some of the things that make our approach to direct admission unique, because there are a lot of different approaches to it, is the fact that it’s starting with our mission, and this moonshot goal, that we have to truly create more access to opportunity for students. It’s grounded in research. So we will continue to look at the results of this. We want to see students enrolling, we also want to see them persisting at that institution and ultimately graduating. So we’ll be continuing to evaluate this effort and continuing to improve it.

How has the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action impacted the decision to expand this program?

We made some adjustments because we had done outreach to students from underrepresented groups based on race/ethnicity, and we’ve modified it. But the only modification is that we’re focusing on income and communities and first-generation college students. And so we see this as a way to get students who might not otherwise be persisting in this process to do so.

What are the goals for this program moving forward?

We are also doing outreach to the students’ school counselors, as well as a parent or guardian so the student has a trusted adult to help them navigate the direct admission opportunity.

Probably the biggest barrier to access to college is cost. And so that’s our next frontier: to really simplify access to financial assistance for students. And we know we can’t do that alone. There are a variety of initiatives that we need to put forward, but we aspire to be able to help a student not only get a direct admission offer, but know how much it’s going to cost them over that time period, and also be able to point them to financial resources.

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