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Idaho’s Bold Initiative
Will It Help?

Earlier this week, Inside Higher Ed reported on the recent announcement by the state of Idaho that, beginning with the class of 2016, the state’s high school graduates would be guaranteed admission into at least some, and possibly all, of Idaho’s eight public colleges and universities. For more than 20,000 public high school graduates, admission into five of the state’s postsecondary schools would be guaranteed while the remaining three – Boise State University, Idaho State University, and University of Idaho – would be automatic conditional on academic performance. Those who don’t meet the default threshold of the more selective institutions would still have the opportunity to apply the traditional way.

This announcement comes on the heels of discouraging news about college enrollment, nationally. A recent American Council on Education report found that the percentage of high school graduates that have enrolled in two- and four-year institutions declined from 68.6% in 2008 to 65.9% in 2013. Although this trend can be seen across all income groups, it is most pronounced among low-income students (family income in the bottom 20%), where enrollment has dropped from 55.9% to 45.5%.

The issue of low postsecondary enrollment is particularly problematic in Idaho. According to a 2010 report by The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Idaho’s 45.1% was the lowest college-going rate of high school graduates directly from high school, compared to the national average of 62.5%. Inside Higher Ed reported that about half of last year’s Idaho public high school graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year institution within a year, still well below the national average.

One troubling problem that automatic admission may alleviate is the phenomenon of “undermatching.” According to a 2013 study, 41% of all students and nearly half of low-socioeconomic-status students choose a less-selective college than they could have attended. As a White House report on college opportunity for low-income students summarized, many students undermatch because “they are not fully aware of their options” and are unfamiliar with the process of applying to college. Social factors also play a role. Automatic admission would mitigate these obstacles, matching students to state institutions for which they qualify by default.

Although novel, Idaho’s initiative certainly has limitations. First, financial limitations may prevent students from taking up the offers of admission. As ACE and others (including my colleagues at Ithaka S+R) have posited, it is likely that the dramatic decline in low-income students’ enrollment can be traced to significant increases in costs, particularly among public colleges and universities. Automatic admission would not address this issue.

Nor would it address the fact that about 41% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students fail to earn a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution within six years. Graduation rates are significantly worse for students who begin at two-year institutions, as pointed out in my previous blog post. Increases in enrollment may actually exacerbate this problem and result in both students and taxpayers wasting money.

Finally, there is the question of how the institutions will cope with additional students. Although Inside Higher Ed points out that Idaho’s public institutions have seen enrollment decline, freeing up seats, it is unclear how many students these schools have the capacity to take on without compromising the quality of education (or raising additional revenue).

The state of Idaho has introduced a novel and bold initiative intended to fix a serious and growing issue and should be commended for it. But there are still many unanswered questions about how students, institutions, and the public purse will be affected by the initiative.

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