Congrats! You Didn’t Apply, but We Admitted You Anyway.
Caroline Heiney was sitting in her high-school history class last winter when her phone buzzed. It was an email with a curious subject line: “Your Direct Admission to Montclair State University.” She hadn’t even applied there, so she figured it was a scam.
But the email was legit. It explained that she had been “selected” for admission because she lived in New Jersey and met Montclair State’s academic requirements, based on information she had entered into her Common Application account. To claim the offer, she just had to submit a Common App to the university by May 1.
After cheer practice, Heiney visited Montclair State’s website. The detailed descriptions of its English and psychology programs impressed her. She saw that her grade-point average would qualify her for an institutional scholarship. All of a sudden, she wasn’t so sure about her plan to attend the University of Scranton.
Heiney submitted her application to Montclair State and got an aid offer a week and a half later. After seeing that she would have to pay about $20,000 less than she would at Scranton, she says, she decided to enroll at a university that had never been on her list.
Just like that, the teenager had become a participant in a grand admissions experiment.
The act of applying to college is changing. As The Chronicle reported last year, a growing number of institutions, state systems, application platforms, and technology companies are experimenting with direct admission, in which prescreened students are promised a seat if they go ahead and apply. Over the last year, dozens more colleges have signed up for the new initiatives, some of which remove conventional applications from the equation.
The leaders of the ventures say their goal is to simplify a tedious, often intimidating process, enabling more low-income and first-generation students to enroll in college. But if you think altruism alone explains this or any other emerging enrollment strategy, please get a hold of yourself at once. Some colleges that scrap for each and every applicant see the experiments as a new form of lead generation that can help them shore up enrollment and revenue in a relentlessly competitive industry.
Over time the trend could reshape student recruitment, expose more applicants to more postsecondary options earlier, redefine Ye Olde Admissions Cycle, and increase the efficiency of a notoriously inefficient process. At the same time, it could open a new phase of institutional competition, wreck your college’s enrollment funnel, and complicate yield predictions. Or maybe none of the above.
So far, the evidence suggests that short-circuiting the traditional application process can have a powerful effect on some prospective students. Their stories remind us that applying to college and making a final choice is often an emotional experience. Institutions play on those emotions in powerful ways, which can benefit students — or harm them. And it’s important to remember that surprising teenagers with an admission offer isn’t the same as handing them a generous aid offer.
Heiney, who got the out-of-the-blue email from Montclair State last winter, describes her family of five as middle class, with many health-related expenses. She first had applied to just two colleges, mainly because she didn’t want to shell out any more money for application fees: “Paying to apply and not being sure you’re getting in, that’s kind of terrifying.”
Also, Heiney never considered her college search to be an act of self-discovery. She didn’t want to spend dozens of hours searching for her Perfect Fit while asking herself, “Who am I?” That’s what college is for, she thought. She just wanted to secure a couple of viable options, which she did. When an attractive — and more affordable — offer arrived, she took it. And Montclair State’s “making the first move,” she says, made her feel … wanted.
Heiney, now a freshman majoring in English, recalls applying to college as an uncomfortable chore. “If we could be doing it in this easier way,” she says, “why, for so long, have we been putting ourselves through so much tedious work? Hours and hours of tedious work?”
Jordanna Maziarz has asked herself the same question. Sure, teenagers will jump through endless hoops for a chance to get into an Ivy League college. A gatekeeper admission model, with multiple application requirements, makes sense for highly selective institutions making fine distinctions among hordes of well-qualified applicants.
My goal is to take out as much friction as possible, for as many students as possible.
But what about the majority of colleges, which accept at least half of their applicants? “Most of us are not Harvard, Princeton, and Yale,” says Maziarz, director of undergraduate admissions at Montclair State, which accepted about 90 percent of its applicants last year. “The process doesn’t need to be so difficult for students applying to the vast majority of colleges.”
Maziarz was intrigued when she first heard about the Common Application’s direct-admission pilot program. It began in 2021, when the organization teamed up with three historically Black institutions, in Maryland, Tennessee, and Virginia. About 3,300 high-school seniors in those states who had created Common App accounts and provided enough academic information were selected for guaranteed admission that March.
Those students had at least a 3.0 grade-point average. None had applied to any of the three participating colleges; nearly a third hadn’t applied to a single Common App college. Each of the 3,300 students received a joint email from the Common App and the HBCU in their state explaining the direct-admission program. Eight students ended up enrolling at one of the three colleges, a small but encouraging sign for the Common App.
Maziarz signed up for the second round of the pilot, which expanded to six colleges. During the 2021-22 admissions cycle, Montclair State and the Common Application sent direct-admission offers to about 3,000 students.
It’s helpful to think of direct admission as “pre-admission.” Students are told that their offer is contingent on verification of their self-reported information: They aren’t officially admitted until they send their high-school transcript. A total of 249 students submitted an application to Montclair State, which admitted 235. The rest either didn’t confirm their GPA or had a GPA that was, in fact, too low to qualify.
In the end, 31 students sent deposits. As of census day last fall, 27 were enrolled. Though they accounted for just 0.7 percent of Montclair State’s freshman class, Maziarz found the results encouraging. For one thing, those students were more likely to be first-generation and nonwhite than were those in the overall pool. “This is part of a wave to make things more accessible,” she says. “My goal is to take out as much friction as possible, for as many students as possible.”
The Common Application plans to release the results of the second round of its pilot — in which 18,000 students were offered a spot at six institutions — this spring. For the third round, the Common App and 14 participating institutions made direct-admission offers to nearly 30,000 students. This time around, the offers went out in October and November.
illustration of 2 hands and bubbles holding happy students
LJ Davids for The Chronicle
So far, the effects of the experiment have been strongest for Black, Latino, and first-generation students, says Jenny Rickard, president and chief executive of the Common App. “We know that many students feel that going to college is almost an impossibility, and their fear of rejection is profound,” she says. “Now we’re seeing that a direct-admission offer can have a significant impact on them.”
Redi Abebe once felt stranded and stressed out. While her classmates in Beltsville, Md., were awaiting college acceptances last winter, she was still figuring out where to apply — and how to do it.
Abebe, who grew up in Ethiopia, had always hoped to become a cardiologist. She came to the United States in the fall of 2021 and sought asylum. She and one of her sisters were living with an uncle, on their way to becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. In her new country, she savored her first taste of bacon, her first sight of snow. But she worried that she wouldn’t end up at a four-year college, and didn’t know how she would pay for it if she did. Though her counselor and a few teachers gave her some advice, she says, she felt overwhelmed: “I was lonely in this process.”
Abebe applied haphazardly to a handful of in-state colleges, plus one in Texas. She got a few acceptances but not much financial aid. As a foreign national, she couldn’t qualify for federal grants or loans. She applied to a local community college but didn’t like the thought of trying to transfer down the line.
One day someone told her about Niche.com, a college- and scholarship-search tool that includes reviews and ratings of campuses. Users can browse colleges and indicate the ones that interest them. Abebe registered and answered 30 questions (about her high-school GPA, what she was looking for in a college, and so on). As it happens, Niche.com was running its own direct-admission pilot with two four-year institutions. One of them was Mount St. Mary’s University, about 50 miles from where she lived.
Niche.com’s experiment worked like this: Last spring the company compiled an anonymized list of all the qualified students who had indicated an interest in one of the two participating colleges but hadn’t applied. The company used the information — along with a list of students who had expressed interest in similar institutions — to compile a trove of prospects who met each participating college’s academic criteria. Those prospects received an email from Niche.com stating that they had been admitted, with a merit scholarship. Recipients were invited to click here to learn more, after which the participating colleges took over.
“Choosing a college is not an easy process — and it’s very stressful,” says Luke Skurman, founder and chief executive of Niche.com. “We’re trying to chill it out a little bit.”
Last spring Abebe learned that she had received an admission offer, plus a $25,000 scholarship, from Mount St. Mary’s. For a moment, she sat quietly, frozen in joy: “That was the best moment of my life.”
Proponents of direct admission say they’re flipping the script. Joe Morrison says he’s writing a new one.
Morrison is the founder of Concourse, an online admissions platform now owned by EAB, an enrollment-consulting firm. In the fall of 2021, EAB started Greenlight Match, a program that uses the platform to help colleges connect with low-income and first-generation students throughout the country. It uses a questionnaire in lieu of a traditional application.
“The admissions process, as it is today, is inherently cruel,” Morrison says. “An institution does scattershot marketing and tells everyone to apply. The student pays $100, fills out an application, waits a few months, and then the institution says no. That’s really cruel. I want to fix that.”
Students participating in Greenlight Match create free profiles describing their academic achievements and interests (it takes 30 to 40 minutes to complete). Test scores and essays aren’t required, though students can include them. School officials certify the students’ credentials and submit their information to participating colleges, which periodically review all the profiles that meet their selection criteria. At that stage, admissions officers don’t know applicants’ names, race, or ethnicity; they see just the names of students’ high schools, their transcripts, and information they shared about their academic interests.
Greenlight Match functions on an accelerated timeline. Within just a few weeks, colleges extend admission and scholarship offers to the students. No one gets any rejections — just notifications of acceptances. Students then choose which institutions they want to communicate with. Only then can colleges see their names and contact information. At that point admissions officers can engage directly with them.
Morrison calls it reverse admissions: “We’re trying to change this process to be much more about colleges coming to students and competing for them.” He distinguishes it from some direct-admission programs in which preselected students must take additional steps to get an official offer — and see if they might qualify for institutional grants and scholarships.
In Greenlight Match’s first-year pilot, in Chicago, 10 colleges evaluated about 700 student profiles, made almost 2,000 admission offers, and extended a total of $135 million in scholarship offers, according to EAB. Yet the company can’t say how many of the 700 students enrolled at those colleges last fall. One reason, EAB says, is that the institutions don’t report that data back to the company. Without that information, though, it’s hard to gauge the success of the experiment.
For the 2022-23 admissions cycle, Greenlight Match expanded to include nearly 80 colleges. This time around, it’s working with school networks and community organizations in six additional regions. Among them is CollegeCommunityCareer, a nonprofit group in the Houston area that helps low-income students get to college. Kathy Rose, its executive director, describes the initiative as a welcome attempt to disrupt the status quo. “There’s a lot of gnashing of teeth, moaning, and groaning in the admissions process,” she says. “Now, all of a sudden, my students are being accepted to 10 colleges that they may or may not have heard of. I’ve seen kids who are a little hesitant about college, but then they get these acceptances, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can go to college. They believe in me.’”
That was the case for Nick Hernandez, a student Rose advises who once doubted that he could succeed in college or fit in there. And he didn’t see how his family could even begin to afford it.
But Hernandez’s first campus visit last summer inspired him. And then he matched with more than 10 colleges. That gave him the confidence to apply to several highly selective colleges. “It’s almost like a surprise,” he says. “They pick you. It’s like a boost. They show you love.”
Nadia Escatell calls her experience with Concourse “astonishing.” She liked the specific questions the platform prompted her to answer, about her favorite activities (art, speech, and debate) and her dream job (animator): “I filled it out and then — boom — I got offers from all these colleges that have the programs that I wanted.”
Escatell matched with 13 institutions, including a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest with a $64,000-a-year sticker price that she had never heard of. She has since gotten to know an admissions officer there, who told her about additional institutional scholarships. The college, which she recently visited, was nothing like the large in-state universities that she once figured were her only possible options: “I knew I wanted to go to college, and I sorta had a plan. But I had no idea that all these colleges existed.”
Some epiphanies are happening in enrollment offices, too. Last fall James L. Steen realized that he had a problem: Applications were down about 15 percent, compared with the same point in the previous year. What would he do about that?
Steen, vice president for enrollment management at Houston Christian University, has long overseen an aggressive student-recruitment operation — a necessity. “There’s almost no college I’m competing with,” he says, “that doesn’t cost less or have a bigger reputation, or brand, than we do.”
If I know you’re admissible and can offer you a scholarship, why wouldn’t I do that?
Texas is full of large, big-name universities known for gridiron success; Houston Christian, formerly Houston Baptist University, enrolls only about 4,000 students, and its Division I football team went 0-11 this past season. Despite its recruitment challenges, the university has carved out a niche as a majority-Hispanic institution that’s relatively affordable for lower-income students in the area.
But the 15-percent gap necessitated new strategies, Steen says. “We’ve always got to remove barriers to entry. And what’s the ultimate barrier to entry? The application.”
Steen joined the Greenlight Match pilot last fall, hoping to net a few more applicants. He also signed up for Niche.com’s pilot, which has expanded to 24 institutions across 16 states in the 2022-23 cycle.
Steen has been impressed with the results of both experiments so far. As of late January, Houston Christian had matched with 53 students through Greenlight Match. And it had offered admission to nearly 350 students through Niche.com. Together, that has netted a total of 15 deposits so far. Steen doesn’t expect the initiatives to fill the entire gap in his enrollment funnel, but it’s a start.
Typically, about 55 percent of students who start an application to Houston Christian end up completing it. That means the other 45 percent are essentially useless. “Now I’m pushing out direct-admit offers to those students who haven’t applied but could be a good fit,” Steen says. “This has been so eye-opening and paradigm-shifting. If I know you’re admissible and can offer you a scholarship, why wouldn’t I do that? I might not be one of the five colleges on your radar, but then you see a compelling offer. I can convert some of those students. I’m sitting on thousands of potential applications.”
Jack J. Chielli is intrigued, too. Last year he expected Niche.com’s program to bring Mount St. Mary’s a total of six students. Instead, 19 of them enrolled, part of a first-year class of 459 students.
Chielli, vice president for enrollment marketing and communications, doesn’t predict a revolution in student recruitment. “But if we continue to experiment and this works, we could see a significant change in enrollment strategies five to 10 years out,” he says. “Right now, buying names of prospective students in your backyard, emailing them, and getting them interested can be pretty inefficient. But if students are going to get on these aggregator websites and tell us who they are, we could see some transformation there.”
Innovation can be good, but it can also inspire people to get carried away. It’s too soon to declare that the direct-admission revolution has begun.
For now, the trend might well prompt more colleges to scrutinize their admission requirements and ask, “Do we still need all this?” That question is worth asking at a time when many institutions are contending with demographic changes and bracing for the possible end of race-conscious admissions programs.
But let’s also consider one important fact: Acceptances alone do not guarantee access to higher education.
That was one conclusion of a recent study examining the impact of the nation’s first direct-admission program. Back in 2015, Idaho started informing all seniors in public high schools that they had a guaranteed spot at a state institution; their academic records determined which ones. Though the program increased enrollments at Idaho’s institutions, especially on two-year campuses, the researchers found little or no impact on the enrollment of students eligible for Pell Grants.
Just because students get a guaranteed seat doesn’t mean they won’t encounter what the researchers called other “hazards to enrollment,” such as a lack of financial resources: “It is possible that a direct-admission system on its own is enough to promote enrollment levels of students generally,” they wrote, “but not among low-income students.”
If we continue to experiment and this works, we could see a significant change in enrollment strategies five to 10 years out.
A key question: While the new initiatives might fill teenagers’ inboxes with more acceptances, will they leave students with significant financial need better off than the traditional process does?
Officials at a few of the colleges participating in recent pilots say that they’re increasing their aid budgets to provide more money to students they reach out to. Skurman, at Niche.com, says it strongly recommends that its partner colleges offer so-called merit scholarships to direct-admission students: “Some students don’t even apply because they don’t think they can afford a school, without realizing they will receive a merit scholarship. We are bringing that information forward.”
EAB says several of its partner colleges have pledged to meet full financial need for Greenlight Match students. But none of the initiatives require participating institutions to commit to a minimum threshold of aid.
Remember Nick Hernandez and Nadia Escatell, the students in Houston? So far they’ve received more acceptances than affordable offers through Greenlight Match.
One college Hernandez matched with offered him just a $3,000 scholarship. As of late January, his father was unemployed. His parents had no savings. But then Hernandez had a stroke of luck: Texas Christian University, he says, offered him nearly a full ride. The offer could change his life.
Escatell says most colleges she matched with aren’t realistic options, including one where she would have a $21,000 gap. “It’s a great offer,” she says, “but because of my family’s financial background, I wouldn’t be able to have fun like a normal college student, go to parties, or eat out with friends. It’s doable, but my parents said, ‘Sweetheart, you’d be suffering if you went to that school.’”
The small Midwestern college she matched with impressed her when she visited. Her aid offer included institutional grants and scholarships, plus a direct unsubsidized federal loan, covering about two-thirds of the cost of attendance. That leaves her with a considerable gap, plus some indirect costs.
Escatell, who doesn’t qualify for a Pell Grant, isn’t sure that her parents will want to take out Parent PLUS loans, though her father has told her they might be able to cover some of her costs. Either way, it’s not clear if she could manage to borrow enough on her own. Even if she could, she’s wary of taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans: “No one wants to be in debt. I am scared of debt.”
That’s why Rose, who leads the college-access group in Houston, says Greenlight Match could be a mixed bag.
“So far, some of the colleges have given what seems to be a huge scholarship, but when you look at the cost of the college, you think, ‘Where is the kid gonna come up with $25,000 more?’ A Pell Grant isn’t going to cover that,” she says. “If the financial-aid package isn’t great, then it’s nice to have been accepted, but it’s a futile effort.”
Some advisers worry that unconventional admission offers will lead students to make hasty — and potentially harmful — decisions about where to enroll. Danny Tejada, a college counselor at Legacy College Prep Charter School, in the Bronx, N.Y., acknowledges that unconventional offers can raise the morale of students who, for whatever reason, aren’t motivated to apply to college. But he knows that many participating institutions don’t meet students’ full financial need. “My biggest issue with direct admissions is that it can create false hope because of the funding,” he says. “A lot of the time, students and families don’t understand the funding circumstances. Applying to college does need to be made easier for students, but with a balance of not providing false hope.”
Morrison, who created the platform used in Greenlight Match, acknowledges those concerns. “If you have only 95 percent of your needs met, it’s a waste of time,” he says, “because that 5 percent means that you just can’t attend. We don’t have a magic bullet, but we’re trying to create an environment in which colleges are incentivized to do the best possible thing for students.”
Enrollment officials would be wise to keep such concerns in mind. They should also consider that while affluent applicants often have a supporting cast of knowledgeable guides on the path to college, many low-income and first-generation students get little or no help, from their parents or anyone else, when trying to make sense of admission and aid offers. And as the Government Accountability Office recently found, those aid offers are often misleading.
Enrollment officials also might want to imagine a world in which surprise acceptances are raining down all over. “We don’t want to have students get barraged by direct-admission offers,” says Rickard, at the Common App. “That’s stressful in and of itself.”
Exposing more low-income students to more colleges is a good thing. So is making it easier for them to apply. And, yes, it’s a powerful act to help a student feel validated. Wanted. Seen. It’s a dopamine blast, for sure. But that’s not the same as giving students more options that they can afford. All the college acceptances in the world don’t mean much if you have to take on a lot of debt just to enroll.
Abebe, the student from Ethiopia, says her parents took out a private loan to cover the $13,000 gap in her aid offer from Mount Saint Mary’s. She expects that her family will have to borrow more — a necessary burden on her path to medical school.
After finishing her first semester with a 4.0 GPA, she learned that she would be eligible for an additional scholarship from Mount Saint Mary’s as a sophomore. She plans to keep looking for other sources of funding.
A year ago, Abebe was a lonely applicant, convinced she wouldn’t get to college. Then a university she had never heard of reached out to her in an unconventional way. Months later, she was making friends, connecting with professors, and throwing herself into the study of biology. Each morning she was waking up one day closer to becoming who she had always hoped to become.
Correction (Feb. 13, 2023, 9:40 a.m.): An earlier version of this article used out-of-date data for Greenlight Match’s efforts during the 2022-23 admissions cycle. The project included nearly 80 colleges, not more than 40, in seven locations, not six. The new data are now reflected in the article.