State Board considers pre-accepting students to college

In an attempt to boost Idaho’s go-on rate, the State Board of Education might turn the college application process on its head.

Instead of simply waiting for high school seniors to apply, the State Board could start recruiting them. In essence, the board could start pre-accepting qualified students to Idaho colleges and universities — and send them letters to let them know they’re in.

The State Board will take a first look at the “direct admissions” policy when it meets in Coeur d’Alene later this week. If the board approves the policy in August, the letters could go out this fall.

For the State Board, the direct admissions proposal comes down to some basic mathematics.

About half of Idaho’s 21,000 graduating seniors pursue a postsecondary education. But about a third of the graduating class attends one of Idaho’s public colleges or universities. The state would like to grab a larger share of these 14,000 or so graduates who go elsewhere — or don’t continue their education.

Part of the idea is to reach out to seniors who may be the first in their generation to attend college. The letters will also show students how to complete the application process, by applying for federal financial aid and Idaho scholarships.

And this, say State Board officials, is where they hope the letters could have a life-changing effect. Carson Howell, the board’s research director, can envision students and parents crying — when they realize college is a realistic, attainable goal.

The letters could also make use of some coercive pressure. Since students and parents would get identical letters, State Board spokesman Blake Youde envisions some serious conversations around dinner tables, as parents and students discuss their options.

The direct admissions idea came from University of Idaho President Chuck Staben, who thought of it as a way to recruit more students to the U of I. When the State Board heard about the idea, officials began looking at extending the idea statewide.

It’s uncharted territory for Idaho — and possibly nationally. The State Board doesn’t know of any other state trying such a policy, Howell said. But he says Idaho’s State Board — with jurisdiction over K-12 and higher education — is uniquely qualified to try to connect high school graduates with institutes of higher learning.

There are a few unanswered questions about the proposal.

One is the cutoff: How many students would be eligible for direct admission. The board would work with college provosts to come up with requirements for standardized test scores and grade-point averages.

Another unanswered question is cost. The state has data in place to identify qualified students, Howell said. Youde downplayed the cost of processing and sending letters; it won’t take many additional students for the state to get a return on its investment.

And how many additional students could Idaho recruit? That’s another unknown. Students would have to enroll by December under the direct admission plan. But it would take years to gauge how many students enroll and complete their education.

“We’re expecting this to be a multiyear project to see how it’s working,” Howell said.