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Jada Ponce was surprised to get a letter, when she was a senior in high school, saying that she’d been admitted to the University of Idaho — without having applied. “Getting that letter really encouraged me,” says Ponce, who is now a first-year student. Credit: Saydee Brass for The Hechinger Report

Jada Ponce was surprised by the letter that was waiting for her when she got home from school one day in the fall of her senior year at Vallivue High School in Caldwell, Idaho.

She’d been admitted not only to the University of Idaho, the letter said, but also to Boise State University — institutions to which she hadn’t actually applied.

The next day at school, all the other seniors Ponce spoke to had gotten the same letter.

While their counterparts around the country were sweating through the complex, time-consuming, nerve-wracking process of choosing and being accepted to a college — an experience some students find so intimidating, research shows, that they don’t even bother — Ponce and her classmates, including her twin sister, Yazmine, were already in.

That’s because, rather than waiting for students to apply, Idaho admits those who meet a certain combination of requirements to all of its public universities and community colleges, before they fill out a single form.

The idea is not only to embolden these students to pursue degrees, but to get them to stay in Idaho, which has experienced a brain drain of high school graduates leaving for college elsewhere and never coming back. It’s an approach that has since been picked up by South Dakota, while Illinois, Hawaii and Texas are considering similar initiatives.

“Getting that letter really encouraged me because I saw that I got into a lot of schools,” said Ponce, who took up the offer and enrolled at the University of Idaho, where she is now a first-year business major.

Related: Why aren’t more school counselors trained in helping students apply to college?

Chuck Staben advocated for Idaho high school students to be automatically admitted to the University of Idaho when he was president there. Staben went through the application process himself, and found it “clunky and duplicative.” Credit: Saydee Brass for The Hechinger Report

Preemptively admitting Idaho students was the idea of Chuck Staben, former president of the University of Idaho, who filled out the university’s undergraduate application one day to see what the experience was like.

“It was slow, clunky and duplicative,” Staben said. “The application was awful. Why do we make it so hard for students to apply?”

The experience prompted him to advocate for a statewide reform of admission to Idaho’s eight public colleges and universities. That would be easier in Idaho than in many other states, since it has a single board of education overseeing K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities, meaning it could track its students through the entire system. Idaho also requires all of its students to take the SAT or ACT to graduate from high school.

Sophia Gutierrez, left, with Chuck Staben and Jada Ponce, on the Hello Walk at the University of Idaho. Gutierrez and Ponce were automatically admitted to the university when they were high school seniors, under a plan that Staben pushed when he was president. Credit: Saydee Brass for The Hechinger Report

If their grades and test scores meet certain cutoffs, Idaho students are now automatically admitted to its public colleges and universities. They get a letter that directs them to a simple form, common to all eight institutions, on which they fill out basic personal information to claim their spot at a specific school. (They also must complete a separate form if they want financial aid.)

“Instead of asking students to go off and find the college they want to go to, direct admission is really flipping the script,” said Jennifer Delaney, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is studying the Idaho experiment.

Officials hope the strategy will encourage more students to pursue higher education in a state that in 2016 was dead last in the proportion of its high school graduates who went directly on to college: 44 percent, compared to the national average of 70 percent.

Delaney and her fellow researchers credit direct admission with spurring an 11 percent increase in Idaho’s college and university enrollment. It also appears to be keeping more college-going high school graduates in Idaho. Seventy-five percent of the class of 2019 stayed in the state, compared to 72 percent of the class of 2015, the Idaho Board of Education says.

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Other states are looking closely at Idaho’s experience with direct admission; South Dakota has already followed suit. Larger states that are considering it, including Illinois, Delaney said, might adopt a hybrid model in which eligible students are admitted automatically to all but the most selective institutions, such as her own flagship university.

The administration building at the University of Idaho. Idaho high school seniors are admitted to the university automatically if they meet certain criteria, without having to apply. Credit: Saydee Brass for The Hechinger Report

Direct admission isn’t just meant to make the application process simpler, said Staben, but is “a piece of a much larger effort to encourage college-going, and to change the psychology of college-going, particularly among lower-income, first-generation [and other] populations less likely to attend college.”

In the meantime, however, Delaney said, “the idea that we’re making students individually fill out the same information over and over again for each campus they want to go to” is no longer necessary, given all the data about them that most states have.

She would also like to see direct admission letters include information about the financial aid for which a student qualifies. Some states are  moving in a direction that would help make that possible. Idaho, for instance, will include financial aid information in the letters that are sent out starting in September. Louisiana has begun requiring all high school seniors to complete the FAFSA, the federal financial aid form, as a graduation requirement; Illinois will do the same thing starting with the 2020-21 academic year and Texas the year after that.

Delaney is particularly optimistic about the possibility of direct admission for boosting college-going rates in states where the number of 18- to 24-year-olds is falling, causing an enrollment decline. “We need to educate more people at the postsecondary level to meet our future workforce needs,” Delaney said.

But the most immediate impact, she said, is the positive message being sent to students.

Related: Some colleges start to confront a surprising reason students fail: Too many choices

Sophia Gutierrez, a first-year student at the University of Idaho, to which she was automatically admitted when she was a high school senior. “It was one of my proudest moments where I felt, ‘This is possible,’ ” Gutierrez says. Credit: Saydee Brass for The Hechinger Report

Sophia Gutierrez is a first-year advertising and international studies major at the University of Idaho. She hadn’t given much thought to college before she got that unsolicited acceptance letter last fall, when she was a senior at Shoshone High School — a rural school with a student population of about 150.

“The letter really helped give me a kind of a path to where I wanted to go,” Gutierrez said. “It showed me that I have opportunities here in the state of Idaho.”

Her family was equally excited, as Guitierrez is the first among her relatives to go beyond high school.

“My parents didn’t have the chance to go to college, and yet here I was first-gen and had direct admission to all the colleges in Idaho. It was one of my proudest moments where I felt, ‘This is possible.’”

Although the process can empower some students, the direct admission approach is not entirely free of the confusion that often accompanies the college application process. Jenni Kimball, a college and career counselor at Borah High School in Boise, said she has had students come to her months after learning they were admitted to Idaho’s public universities and colleges who didn’t realize they had to take additional steps to enroll.

Still, she said, “A lot of kids … just completely rule themselves out as college material. And so getting [the letter], makes them really realize that anyone can go to college.”

Related: To pay for college, more students are promising a piece of their future to investors

The University of Idaho’s Hello Walk. Idaho high school seniors are admitted to the university automatically if they meet certain criteria, without having to apply. Credit: Saydee Brass for The Hechinger Report

Rubi Robles is a 17-year-old high school senior at Shoshone High School who said she would have only applied to the community college nearest to her home in southern Idaho if she hadn’t received the letter admitting her to the University of Idaho.

Even getting in doesn’t mean she’ll go, however. Ultimately Robles’ decision about where to go to college next fall will come down to how much financial aid she’s offered.

“I’ll be the one that’s paying for my tuition and books and everything, ’cause my parents don’t have the money for it,” Robles said.

As for Ponce — the third oldest in a family of eight girls — she was joined by her entire family when she made the seven-hour trip north to start at the University of Idaho in the fall.

“At first, I didn’t want them to come, they’re just going to be crying in the car, and it’s going to be hectic because I have so many sisters,” Ponce said. “But in the end, I actually really loved that they came because I got to be a role model for them.”

This story about the college admission process was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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