Late last year, we at Lumina Foundation saw a unique opportunity to rethink the college admissions process for the better.

At the time, the admissions, recruitment, and onboarding landscape was in tremendous upheaval. The SCOTUS decision banning the practice of race-conscious admissions, the pandemic-driven increase in test-optional admissions, and the pending enrollment cliff of traditional-aged students had higher education reeling at all the changes.

We viewed this upheaval as the right moment in history to challenge the nation to offer their best ideas to transform admissions processes toward simplicity, innovation—and opportunity—for students.

So, we introduced the Great Admissions Redesign in September of 2023.

Learn more about the winners of the Great Admissions Redesign.

Why simplicity?

As Richard Reeves from the Brookings Institute has said, “Complexity is the friend of the privileged.” Complicated systems are for those with the time, support, and resources to figure them out.

Students of all ages have to pass through a gauntlet of unclear information, seemingly endless steps, confusing application and admissions requirements, and administrative hurdles—all of which rely heavily upon social and cultural capital, which white students disproportionately hold. While many students of color successfully navigate the process, the lack of access to specialized knowledge of the processes necessary to apply to college creates a barrier that disproportionately affects students of color, low-income students, and those who would be first in their families to attend college.

College should not be available only to those born with the keys. Simplicity in our onboarding processes is crucial to ensuring the promise of higher education is open to all.

How did it go?

We weren’t sure how higher education would respond to The Great Admissions Redesign. Simplifying a complex process is no easy task. In a field overwhelmed with change, capacity challenges, and a quickly evolving landscape, would higher ed leaders and policymakers want to think big and dig in to do something transformational?

But to our delight, we received more than double the number of applications we anticipated. Project ideas were wide and varied. We saw proposals for colleges to remove the application altogether or accept everyone who applies. Others suggested tying financial aid to automated admissions or using AI to support understaffed admissions offices.

We discovered that higher education leaders are not only brimming with ideas to improve admissions, they’re also hungry to execute them.

And upon reviewing more than 70 applications, we learned a few things we want to share. Here are three things we learned from the Great Admissions Redesign:

  1. Direct admissions is king.
    Most Great Admissions Redesign applicants recommended some form of direct admissions. Direct admissions means students, typically high school seniors, are notified which colleges they’d be eligible to enroll in before applying, taking the guesswork out of the application process.Pioneered in Idaho, this method has proven to be one of the most straightforward and low-cost admissions transformations that increases enrollment among traditional-aged students. A on Idaho’s direct admissions program found increases in first-time undergraduate enrollment of 4 to 8 percent the year after launching direct admissions. It also benefits the state: More Idaho students (8 to 15 percent) chose an in-state college after implementing direct admissions.Direct admissions has the greatest impact on Black, Hispanic and Latino, and first-generation students, according to research from Common App. While not a silver bullet solution to issues with college access, direct admissions has shown significant promise. Based on the interest in this admissions innovation from Great Admissions Redesign applicants, we predict direct admissions processes will continue to grow, improve, and spread.
  2. Automation can’t happen all at once. It requires incremental progress.
    Automating any process requires the seamless connection and movement of data. For successful admissions automation, K-12 and higher education need meaningfully aligned and high-quality data systems.Once aligned, incremental improvements are possible. If a state or system does the labor to connect K-12 and higher education data systems to implement direct admissions, they set the stage for the next automated process. Implementing direct admissions for transfer students, removing the application altogether, and even tying in financial aid eligibility all become possible with a solid foundation of data alignment. Because of the “stacking” nature of these innovations, the possibilities are endless.Building a solid foundation of data systems is necessary before tackling the automation of multiple processes. Start with one and build from there.
  3. State higher education agencies are in the admissions space like never before.
    Of the 71 applications we received for The Great Admissions Redesign, 16 came from State Higher Education Executive Officer (SHEEO) agencies. SHEEOs are central agencies with governance or coordinating roles for the state’s public colleges. A decade ago, admissions was strictly under the purview of individual institutions, but the Great Admissions Redesign showed that SHEEO agencies are solidly in the admissions space.Why is this? Pandemic-related drops in enrollment might have forced states and systems to think creatively about how to attract and support more students. SHEEOs are uniquely situated to support that effort, as they are institutionally agnostic: they don’t care where a student goes to college just so long as they go. Because of this, SHEEOs are well-positioned to support broad, statewide college access efforts. Not only that, but the needed data systems alignment for admissions automation cannot happen institution by institution. Connecting K-12 data with higher education data at a structural level can only occur systemwide.

So, what’s next?

We’re excited to announce the winners of The Great Admissions Redesign, who initiated some of the most exciting ideas for transforming admissions across the country.

  • Illinois Board of Higher Education: Awarded $750,000 to directly admit community college transfer students and high school seniors statewide to Illinois universities.
  • California State University System: Awarded $750,000 to automate admissions to the CSU system and support verified transcript submission through California’s college and career readiness platform,
  • Northern Arizona University: Awarded $750,000 to expand its universal admissions program with nine Arizona community college districts.
  • Louisiana Board of Regents: Awarded $300,000 to prepare to automate admissions for students using Louisiana’s universal transfer pathway and for high school seniors.
  • Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board: Awarded $250,000 to develop direct admissions pathways for Texas students using the state’s college and career readiness platform,
  • Washington Student Achievement Council: Awarded $150,000 to prepare a proactive admissions process integrating financial aid eligibility.
  • Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education: Awarded $150,000 to align existing initiatives toward a simplified admissions process for Kentucky students and to consider using AI in admissions offices to alleviate capacity issues.

We’ll learn alongside them as they launch their plans to help prospective students get in the door to college and how to implement and scale their ideas so every school in the country—and most importantly, students—can have a better admissions experience. We hope you’ll follow us along this journey, as well.

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