Taking a closer look at Common App Direct Admissions
On November 8, Common App launched its direct admissions program with 70 member colleges and universities. Over 300,000 first-generation and low and middle-income students across 28 states received proactive admissions offers. Common App Direct Admissions also included outreach and resources to families and counselors with students receiving direct admissions offers.
The program builds from three rounds of pilots and research demonstrating that these offers have great potential to help more students–especially those who are first-generation or from low-income communities–access higher education.
Common App Direct Admissions is one of the many ways the organization is expanding the students it serves through its Next Chapter, with a goal to close its equity gap for low- and middle-income students accessing postsecondary opportunities by 2030. Common App Direct Admission supports this moonshot by focusing on expanding access for first-generation and low-income students.
Read on below to learn more about the program and how it’s going so far.
What is the inspiration behind direct admissions and Common App’s program?
A few years ago, we asked students to tell us some words they would NEVER use to describe the college admissions process. Words like Simple, Logical, Joyful, and Equitable emerged repeatedly among our constituents. We know there is little joy in the admissions process. For many students, the entire process of applying to college creates a profound fear of rejection and even makes them question their self-worth, especially for first-generation or low-income students.
What’s more, the admissions process makes higher education, and the promise of a degree, seem like a scarce opportunity — even though it isn’t! In fact, the majority of colleges admit at least two-thirds of all applicants, and largely base their decisions off of the high school transcript.
Tackling this fear of rejection is what motivated us to launch our direct admissions pilot. Inspired by a groundbreaking experiment in Idaho, where higher ed leaders ditched the traditional application process in favor of a “direct admission” policy, we launched our own pilot in March of 2021.
Overall, direct admissions is about changing the narrative of a college education from one of scarcity to one of opportunity by ensuring students know that a college education is absolutely available to them — and that they are worthy and welcome on a college campus.
The program has gone through three separate pilot programs before its full-scale launch this year. What did those pilots look like?
Our first pilot was launched in March of 2021 and focused on providing direct admissions offers from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to students across Tennessee, Virginia, and Maryland. Approximately 3,300 students who created a Common App account and provided enough academic information but did not complete their applications were selected to receive direct admissions.
The students received an email from Common App and the institution. Students receiving the letter were instructed to apply and provided with an application fee waiver.
The results were promising, and so in January 2022, Common App launched the second year of its direct admission pilot program that offered admission to students in the states of Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey. Approximately 18,000 students across these four states who created a Common App account and met the requirements of a participating institution were offered direct admission.
Our latest pilot in November 2022 provided 33,000 students with offers across six states. Among the three pilots, the results were the same:
- Overall, direct admit students were more likely to apply to the institution than if they didn’t receive a direct admissions offer.
- Our team found strong evidence that impacts were strongest for Black or African American, Latinx, and first-generation students.
- Students gained confidence as a result of their direct admission offer, regardless of whether they acted on them. We also found that students felt they had more choices in the college application process.
How does Common App Direct Admissions work?
To be eligible for Common App’s Direct Admissions program, students indicated the following information on their Common App profile prior to November 8:
- Student eligibility: First-generation college students (neither parent has earned a bachelor’s degree) OR residing in a neighborhood with household incomes below the national average OR eligible for Common App fee waiver
- Self-reported GPA
- State of residence
- Once the student applies, colleges will verify the accuracy of their application information using official documents like school forms and transcripts. Once a college verifies that they meet all requirements (including GPA and college-specific exceptions), they will admit the student.
- While we certainly try to avoid these situations as much as possible, certain students who received an offer may not be eligible for direct admission following a closer review of the students' official documents, such as school reports and transcripts – depending on each college's unique requirements.
There are so many different types of direct admissions programs out there. What makes Common App’s program unique?
There are so many right now! We differentiate our program in three different ways:
Mission-Grounded: From the beginning, Common App's approach to direct admissions has been grounded in its mission of access, equity, and integrity. Common App Direct Admissions stays true to this mission and supports the organization’s Next Chapter by expanding access for first-generation and low-income students.
Research-Informed: We leveraged the work of Idaho and its researchers, including Taylor Odle and Jennifer Delaney, and then we launched three pilots over two years, iterating and changing aspects of the program through a randomized controlled trial. It is truly student-centered and engages trusted adults–families, and counselors.
- Common App Direct Admissions doesn’t add any steps for students. They can receive direct admissions offers while also exploring nearly 1,100 colleges and universities on the same application platform that over 1.4 million students use each year.
- This program is focused on reaching first-generation and low-income students so they know they are worthy of postsecondary and feel welcomed by at least one Common App member college.
How is the program going so far? What have you learned, and what types of feedback are you receiving?
We’ve learned so much about this program so far. While we have piloted direct admissions since 2021, the full-scale launch of the program is new, and it’s big. We’ve gone from 30,000 students to 300,000 students receiving direct admissions offers. And with any new initiative, we will take away key lessons and changes that we’ll implement to make it even better in the future.
Here’s what we know has worked:
- Targeted approach to low-income and first-generation students: For many students, the entire process of applying to college creates a profound fear of rejection and even makes them question their self-worth, especially for first-generation or low-income students. We’ve learned through our pilots that a targeted focus on first-generation and low-income students helps us target those who need the most support during the college admission process.
- Students reached by direct admission apply earlier: The third round of our pilot showed that students who received direct admission offers tended to apply earlier than their peers who did not receive offers. This could give these students advantages, like more time to access scholarships and aid available on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Outreach to counselors and families: We all know that students look to their families and their counselors for help throughout the college application process. By sending emails to a student’s counselor and family members, it allows those student-supporters to understand what Direct Admissions is and how they can learn more.
Here’s what we’ve learned:
- More tailored approach to counselor and family communications: We’ve received helpful feedback from counselors who are looking for more tailored information on who from their class received offers and to where. This is feedback we’re taking into account for future iterations of this program. We also heard from a lot of parents who had questions about what their student needed to do next, and they were grateful that we let them know about these opportunities for their kids. In both cases, parents and counselors were glad to be engaged as part of our program.
- Understanding the nuances of college admission practices: Every college makes admission decisions a little differently. That's why we make clear that the direct admission offers are non-binding and depend on the college's review and verification of the student’s credentials. Of course, we want to make sure that those direct admissions offers hold to the greatest extent possible—and that's why we work with colleges to make sure we're limiting offers to the students most likely to qualify. In practice, there will be some students who receive an offer but won’t be eligible for direct admission following a closer review of their records—depending on each college's requirements. Those kinds of issues can never be completely eliminated, but we work to limit them by working closely with colleges and being clear with students.
Direct admissions is just one way that Common App is working toward its moonshot goal in its Next Chapter. How else is the organization working towards closing its equity gap?
We see Direct Admission as just one of a number of systemic approaches to improving access, increasing the college-going rate, and ultimately creating upward socio-economic mobility.
We’re also using our data and collective voice to expand access by continuing to reimagine the college admissions process so students have more agency in it. We use our data and conduct research to shine a light on promising practices and opportunities and to raise awareness of barriers in the college application process for underrepresented students—all in real-time. These insights help Common App, our member colleges and universities, counselors, and others do more to support students on their way to postsecondary success.
We also know that affordability continues to be one of the biggest barriers to a college education. Our continued partnership with Scholarship America, the largest aggregator of private scholarships in the country, has shown even more promising results. Our goal is to help students seamlessly apply for scholarships directly through Common App.
Overall, all of the work we do at Common App is about going beyond the application to empower more students to access, afford, and attain postsecondary opportunities. And we’ll work more closely with our members, counselors, partners, and students to ensure every student who seeks postsecondary opportunities can achieve it.
Emma Steele is the Director of Media and External Affairs at Common App. She’s been with Common App since 2019 and is based in Annandale, VA.