The recently completed state budget includes historic education provisions that could have a tremendous impact on students and families. But throughout the budget process, plenty of other big-impact proposals ended up on the cutting-room floor. Some of these policy ideas deserve a second look from lawmakers, including a Direct Admissions (DA) pilot program proposed by Governor DeWine.
First, some background. Direct admissions is a process whereby colleges and universities reach out to students to make admissions offers (and sometimes financial aid offers, too) before students have formally applied for enrollment. The exact process varies by state and program, but for the most part, higher education institutions make these offers based on academic information provided by a state agency, a high school, or even students themselves via a third-party organization (student-provided data are vetted by a school counselor). Common App, for example, has piloted a direct admissions program since 2019, offering non-binding guaranteed admission to qualified students.
Proponents of DA programs argue that the traditional college application process is confusing for students and their families, and that as a result, it exacerbates inequality. DA programs cut down on this confusion by directly reaching out to students with a bonafide admissions offer. This can be especially powerful for low-income and first-generation students, who might otherwise be unaware of how many options they have, or incorrectly assume that they’re unprepared for college.
Despite what some critics contend, DA programs aren’t meant to pressure kids into higher education. Students are under no obligation to attend any of the colleges they receive direct admissions offers from because it’s not about college-for-all. It’s about putting clear and concise information directly into the hands of students and parents and empowering them to make their own choices. The goal of any well-designed DA program is to make sure that all students—not just those who are affluent or savvy enough to navigate the college admissions process—are aware of all of their options. That means going beyond traditional four-year universities and making sure students are also aware of community colleges and career-technical centers that offer courses and credentials in specific career fields.
Governor DeWine’s DA proposal checked most of those boxes. It would have charged the Chancellor of Higher Education with establishing a process to use student academic records—grade point averages, high school and college transcript information, standardized assessment scores, scores on end of course exams, and any other measure of post-secondary readiness deemed appropriate by the chancellor—to determine and then notify high school seniors if they met the admissions requirements at participating higher education institutions. The chancellor, “to the extent practicable,” would use existing information systems to automate the process and minimize the need for students to provide additional data. And while the legislative language didn’t outright say that participating post-secondary institutions would be extending admissions offers to students who met their criteria, it seems likely that was the goal, given that the program was explicitly identified as a direct admissions pilot.
The pilot would have been voluntary and the chancellor permitted to establish eligibility requirements, but participation would have been open to the vast majority of Ohio’s education institutions. At the secondary level, traditional K–12 districts; joint vocational school districts; and private, charter, and STEM schools were all included. And at the post-secondary level, the pilot was intended to be open to state institutions of higher education, authorized private nonprofit institutions, and Ohio Technical Centers (independently operated career-technical centers that offer adult learners training and credentials for in-demand jobs). Such broad eligibility determinations meant that not only would the vast majority of Ohio students have the opportunity to participate, but students could have been notified about a wide variety of post-secondary institutions, not just the familiar four-year ones.
Critically, the Chancellor of Higher Education would have been required to issue an annual report outlining student participation and the impact of the program on post-secondary outcomes for traditionally underserved student populations. This would have given state leaders and education researchers a chance to track progress over time, evaluate student outcomes, and improve the program’s effectiveness. Analyzing such information is crucial because DA programs are only effective if they improve student enrollment and outcomes. If more students—especially those from traditionally underserved backgrounds—aren’t persisting through college; earning certificates, credentials, and degrees; and landing well-paying jobs that off-set the cost of higher education, then DA programs aren’t fulfilling their promise.
It’s unclear why DeWine’s DA pilot didn’t survive the budget process. One possibility is that, like the majority of Ohioans, lawmakers were unaware of what DA programs are designed to do and why. That’s understandable, given that Ohio doesn’t have an existing similar program. But there’s plenty of precedent elsewhere. In fact, DeWine’s proposal seems to be modeled after a very similar pilot program in another midwestern state.
Direct Admissions Minnesota is a state-funded pilot program coordinated by the Office of Higher Education. It was first launched during the 2022–23 school year, and participants included forty high schools, 7,000 high school seniors, and over fifty higher education institutions. As part of the program, seniors at participating high schools who are on track to graduate receive personalized communication that lists every higher education institution in the state to which the student has received conditional or guaranteed admittance based on their academic record. To officially confirm their admittance to any of these schools, students are required to submit a (free) admissions application.
Minnesota isn’t the only proof point. In 2015, Idaho adopted the nation’s first DA system. The program admits all of the state’s public high school seniors to a minimum of six in-state colleges and universities each year. Like Minnesota, students are notified by the state in the fall and must submit an application to confirm their spot. But unlike Minnesota, Idaho’s program has been around long enough to give researchers a chance to examine some initial outcomes.
In a paper published last year, researchers found evidence that direct admissions increased first-time undergraduate enrollment by 4 to 8 percent, and in-state student enrollment by approximately 8 to 15 percent. Despite these increases, the researchers indicate that direct admissions should be part of the answer for states rather than the entire answer. DA programs have the most potential when they’re accompanied by additional supports for students, like increased financial aid, application fee waivers, and nudges. To harness their potential, policymakers and institutional leaders should “consider pairing a direct admissions system with complementary supports to help students overcome other barriers to college access.”
That seems like good advice for Ohio. Governor DeWine’s direct admissions program wouldn’t be a silver bullet. But it could expose Ohio high schoolers to post-secondary options they weren’t previously aware of, including career pathways programs at community colleges and Ohio Technical Centers. It could empower students to make fully-informed choices about their future, rather than half-informed ones colored by a lack of knowledge about higher education and the admissions process. Most importantly, if it’s paired with efforts to improve the quality of K–12 education and workforce development initiatives, it could help diminish the access and attainment gaps that exist between low-income and first-generation students and their more affluent and well-connected peers. That’s definitely something worth picking up from the cutting-room floor.