Implementing a statewide direct admissions strategy can increase immediate college enrollment rates by simplifying the college admissions process for students, particularly those who typically would not consider college as a viable option academically or financially. Direct admissions is a proactive college enrollment strategy that automatically admits in-state high school seniors to public colleges and universities based on predetermined criteria such as GPA, ACT, or SAT scores. Unlike traditional merit-based guaranteed admissions programs where only top performers are admitted, all in-state students are directly admitted to open-access institutions, while students who exceed the minimum qualifications are also automatically admitted to selective state institutions. High school seniors, their families, and high schools receive letters indicating a student was admitted to college, a list of the institutions where they can enroll, and instructions on how to complete the admissions process for their desired institution.

There are three key components that make direct admissions initiatives successful. First, ensuring access to test scores and/or GPA to assess students’ academic preparation. This can include universal testing policies that require students to complete the ACT or SAT for graduation. Second, a robust state longitudinal data system to share pertinent student information from K-12 systems to the higher education sector. Third, a common application system to streamline the college admissions process.

How does the strategy create more equitable access and opportunities?

The National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2019, about 44 percent of high school completers immediately enrolled in four-year institutions and 22 percent immediately enrolled in two-year institutions. However, the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx families economically and medically, contributing to more Black and Latinx students cancelling or postponing their postsecondary education plans. Furthermore, visiting and applying to multiple colleges can be a financial strain that limits awareness of postsecondary options available for low-income students, especially in rural communities where transportation is often an obstacle. It is critical to proactively provide all students with a clear plan and path that can lead to an immediate, seamless transition from high school to postsecondary education. Direct admissions is a low-cost and efficient solution that simplifies the intimidating college admissions process, reduces culturally biased components of selective matching, and informs students and families of available postsecondary options.

What outcomes or benefits are associated with the strategy?

Idaho has longitudinal data to show benefits from their direct admissions policy. Overall, Idaho has experienced the following statewide outcomes:

What are the budget implications for implementing the strategy?

Direct admissions is a low-cost and effective mechanism with the potential for high return on investment related to increased enrollment rates. Financial resources are needed to support data and technology infrastructure, mailings of acceptance letters, and related communications. However, much of this communication can occur electronically with the exception of ensuring equitable access for students within the digital divide.

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How will the strategy limit significant recurring costs while ensuring long-term sustainability?

Direct admissions initiatives are efficient practices with mostly one-time infrastructure costs associated with data sharing and a common application technology. These components may require periodic maintenance and updates that can possibly be supported by existing agency staff and departments. Utilizing electronic mail can also sustain the efforts while limiting the costs of postage and need for additional staff to prepare mailings.

What is the anticipated timeline for launching the strategy?

A direct admissions initiative can take one academic year to implement at a local district or regional level, whereas statewide implementation requires more collaboration and policy enforcement that can take between one to two years.

What internal and/or external capacity (e.g. personnel, infrastructure, training, etc.) is needed to launch the strategy? To monitor and sustain it?


  • Data sharing infrastructure
  • Clear and coherent admissions criteria and application processes
  • Professional development for school counselors and college admissions staff to advise navigating the direct admissions process
  • Academic maps of credential and degree pathways available at participating institutions
  • A systematic method to clarify financial aid information and limit sticker shock, particularly at selective institutions that might deter low-income students from enrolling
  • Direct admissions and financial aid communications translated in representative student and families’ languages
  • Communications toolkit and materials for notifying students and families, as well as for spreading awareness across stakeholders

Monitor and Sustain

  • Staff capacity to identify and notify students each year
  • Personnel to update and maintain student data and admissions applications systems
  • Institutional admissions personnel to accommodate for the potential influx of students
  • Consistent collaboration with financial aid to provide clear communication on financial implications and available resources
  • An equity and impact evaluation process to conduct recurring analysis of direct admissions outreach, enrollment, and success-disaggregated by race, gender, socioeconomic status, region, program of study, and institution type.
Direct Admissions Initiative - Invest Forward
Direct Admissions Strategy - Invest Forward

What are the first 3-5 steps to take to implement the strategy?

  1. Collaboratively establish cross-sector admissions criteria and tiers that are equitable for all students and accommodates for multiple pathways.
  2. Identify data sharing capabilities and needs to obtain student performance data.
  3. Determine a student-friendly, affordable structure or system for students to submit applications to participating institutions (e.g. a free, statewide common application portal).
  4. Develop a clear and coherent communications strategy to inform students, families, and high schools about available postsecondary pathways, steps to enroll, and financial aid resources.

What are potential challenges for implementing the strategy?

  1. Challenge: Accessing and sharing data, if a state does not have a P-20 data system
    • Solution: Districts can submit performance data direct to specific institutions through an MOU for juniors who complete testing prior to the start of the school year in places without a shared data system.
  2. Challenge: Obtaining buy-in and support from selective institutions
    • Solution: Seek input and collaboration from all institutions and ensure there are clear pathways from college to career.
  3. Challenge: Ensuring students have equitable access to advising and student support services both before and after they are admitted
    • Solution: Enhance student support services to ensure students have access to accommodations and resources to be successful once admitted. Provide training and resources to equity high school counselors, principals, and educators.
  4. Challenge: Ensuring all students have access to credentials of value and programs with promising rates of career placement
    • Solution: Colleges can strengthen workforce partnerships and experiential learning opportunities as student diversity and needs shift.
  5. Challenge: Identifying technology and communications that is accessible for all students, particularly families with limited internet or technology access
    • Solution: Create non-electronic alternative means of communications and potentially offer workshops to reach and support more students.
  6. Challenge: Determining a means for equitable access and support to help foster youth and students with disabilities navigate direct admissions opportunities
    • Solution: Incorporate mechanisms to communicate with transition agencies to support students with exceptional needs or without traditional familial support to navigate the admissions and financial aid process. Identify any application components that may create challenges and determine alternatives to overcome potential barriers.

What are models of schools, districts, and/or organizations that are successfully implementing this strategy?

  • Currently Idaho is the longest standing statewide exemplar of a robust direct admissions policy that proactively admits all public high school seniors to a minimum of six in-state colleges and universities. Students then apply through the online Apply Idaho portal.
  • There are over 12 states that have guaranteed admissions programs for eligible students based on academic performance.
    Both Dallas College and the City University of New York (CUNY) have recently piloted local direct admissions initiatives.

What are some additional resources for districts/states interested in implementing this strategy?

  • Districts and states should consider the role and timing of financial aid package awards within the direct admissions process. In a 2018 study, high-achieving, low-income students were 2.5 times as likely to enroll in college when they received guaranteed financial aid packages prior to application, and college admissions applications significantly increased among diverse populations.
  • Common App partners with states and institutions to develop a common application for participating students.
  • Interested states should reference states that do not have direct admissions systems, but have common applications; these states have experienced increases in college enrollment as well. Their systems can inform what components are necessary for successful implementation. Apply Texas is an example.