Are Direct Admissions the Future?

Though seemingly innocent, such programs can veil progressive social engineering on campus.

The college admissions process can be daunting for high-school students. These young adults must research prospective institutions, consider their desired course of study and career path, determine whether a particular college is worth the cost, and compete with other applicants to gain admission. However, many colleges are now bypassing the traditional admissions process in part, opting instead to mail unsolicited acceptance letters to high schoolers around the country. What may seem like a modern convenience could actually be a last-ditch effort to ensure institutional survival.

Direct admissions aim to increase enrollment by offering seats to students who have not submitted an application. Direct-admissions initiatives have originated at both the university and state level and typically operate by automatically admitting students with particular characteristics, such as attainment of a threshold GPA, class rank, or test score. Whereas guaranteed-admissions programs in states such as Tennessee and Texas require qualifying students to apply to state universities, direct-admissions programs forgo the application process altogether, with seats being offered to, rather than requested by, prospective students. Often branded as initiatives to reach underserved students or lower barriers to admission, direct-admissions programs are clearly intended to keep seats filled at struggling schools with dwindling enrollment. They may also be, despite their gestures in the direction of academic standards, an attempt to subvert egalitarian admissions processes.

Declining enrollment at some institutions may indicate an overdue correction by market forces.While higher-education institutions are naturally inclined toward self-preservation, declining enrollment at some institutions may indicate an overdue correction by market forces. With the return-on-investment of many college degrees in a tailspin, one would expect demand for a college education to decline. Meanwhile, university budgets are bulging with administrative bloat, extraneous amenities, and excessive hand-holding, wreaking havoc on the supply side of the market, as well. If the invisible hand were given space to operate, we would expect to see a decrease in enrollment, forcing administrators to focus on providing a higher-quality education at a more affordable cost.

Politicians aren’t getting the memo. Rather than reallocating state funding or boosting enrollment by substantively cutting tuition costs, they are doubling down on filling seats at inefficient institutions by short-circuiting the admissions process.

New York governor Kathy Hochul recently announced a direct-admissions initiative for the SUNY system, aiming to boost enrollment from its current total of 368,000 to 500,000 students. Hochul’s plan offers direct admission to state universities for the top 10 percent of New York high-school graduates. Part of her scheme is to require all New York high-school students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). While likely well-intentioned, a mandate that students apply for federal financial aid reveals that politicians understand that the costs of a state-university education outweigh the benefits for many students at sticker price.

New York isn’t the only state to plunge into the direct-admissions scheme. The University of Wisconsin recently launched direct admissions at 10 of its 13 campuses. Tellingly, the flagship institution in Madison, in addition to the UW campuses in Eau Claire and La Crosse, did not adopt the policy. Popular universities with reputable programs can rely on broad student demand for worthwhile programs, while struggling institutions must attempt to capture less-informed students to maintain their cash flow. In the fall of 2023, the University of Georgia System sent 120,000 high-school seniors letters promising a seat for the following term. According to Inside Higher Ed, 10 states now offer “system-level direct admissions.”

Direct admissions may be an effective way for private institutions to recruit prospective students. However, public-university stakeholders ought to be skeptical of attempts to boost enrollment in programs in which students are not interested. Administrators and state officials should focus on allocating resources toward in-demand programs, as evidenced by competitive admissions processes, that provide substantial returns for students and their respective states.

In response to enrollment declines, UNC Greensboro recently proposed cuts to 20 academic programs. These cuts are slated to impact programs with enrollment totals “varying from zero to 62.” While public outcry followed the announcement of the cuts, there are compelling reasons to right-size such programs. Often, similar programs are offered at multiple campuses within state university systems. If one program significantly underperforms those at other system schools, it becomes a costly and redundant burden on taxpayers to keep it open and does a disservice to enrolled students. Rather than attempting to fill seats in such programs via unsolicited admissions, university systems should focus on other courses of study.

University stakeholders ought to be skeptical of attempts to boost enrollment in programs in which students are not interested.With total university enrollment declining, colleges themselves, rather than just individual programs, may need to close. According to an analysis of federal enrollment data by education consulting firm EAB, “449 colleges are expected to see a 25 percent decline in enrollment and 182 colleges are expected to see a 50 percent decline” by 2030. The number of closures and mergers will likely increase as enrollments decline, particularly in the private sector. For example, Villanova University is acquiring Cabrini University following the 2024 academic year. Higher Ed Dive has compiled an extensive list of college closures since 2016. Public higher-education systems ought to observe these private-sector trends and prepare themselves to align resource allocation and program offerings with student demand and market needs.

Unfortunately, some of the motives underlying efforts to expand direct admissions are more insidious than mere financial self-preservation. A Biden administration report on “Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Opportunity in Higher Education” indicates that direct admissions are part of a broader scheme to expand DEI and subvert the Supreme Court’s rulings in SFFA v. Harvard and UNC. The report, which dedicates an entire page to direct admissions, touts such initiatives for disproportionately increasing applications among “first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color.”

Implementing admissions schemes that are ostensibly race-blind with the intent to admit students of favored races violates, at a minimum, the spirit of the Supreme Court’s ruling on racial discrimination in admissions. Conducting research on how various admissions policies affect the racial makeup of student bodies—and subsequently recommending policies based on their racial outcomes—poses obvious ethical and constitutional concerns. In the same Biden administration report, the education department recommends expanding DEI programs, abandoning standardized tests, and reconsidering programs like “early decision,” which the administration claims exhibit “markers of privilege.” Administrators and stakeholders should be wary that pushes for direct admissions are a Trojan horse for those with ulterior motives for higher education.

The allure of boosting enrollment numbers through unsolicited acceptance letters risks overshadowing the core mission of higher education: to provide quality learning experiences that prepare students for meaningful contributions to society. While the intentions behind direct-admissions initiatives may vary, these policies raise critical questions about the long-term viability of educational institutions. As we navigate the rapidly changing college-admissions landscape, it is imperative that stakeholders remain vigilant, ensuring that admissions policies uphold the principles of rigor, integrity, and educational equality.

Harrington Shaw is an intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a senior studying economics and philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill.