New York Expands Direct Admissions Program

Top 10% and direct admissions programs promise to increase diversity, but do they deliver on that promise?
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on January 23, 2024
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  • New York announced a direct admissions program for its SUNY and CUNY systems.
  • Colleges within those systems will offer automatic admission for students in the top 10% of their class.
  • A top 10% program in Texas has had limited success in increasing student diversity.
  • Several states have introduced direct admissions programs, while the Common App launched a broader effort.

Earlier this month, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a series of initiatives designed to increase access to the state's colleges and universities.

Most notable among these plans is the expansion of direct admissions, an enrollment tactic gaining popularity among several states and adopted by the Common Application, along with a focus on students in the top 10% of their class.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has banned affirmative action, will New York's efforts sufficiently enhance diversity?

SUNY, CUNY to Offer Direct Admissions to Top 10%

As part of her 2024 “State of the State” address, Hochul announced on Jan. 9 an ambitious plan offering high school students graduating in the top 10% of their class direct admission to colleges within the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) systems.

Access to higher education has the potential to transform the lives of young New Yorkers and change the trajectory of a student's life, Gov. Hochul said in a statement. Through these bold initiatives, we are taking critical steps toward ensuring every New York student can continue their education, build their professional career, and pursue their dreams.

The CUNY system already has instituted direct admissions and will redouble its efforts. This year, 65,000 students received admissions letters to the system's community colleges and information about CUNY's four-year universities.

Meanwhile, SUNY will launch its own version over the coming year, expanding opportunities for thousands of high-achieving students across New York.

Spanning 64 campuses, SUNY is the nation's largest state system of higher education, enrolling some 1.3 million students. The CUNY system, encompassing 25 campuses with 275,000 students, is the nation's largest urban public university.

Top 10% Programs Produce Mixed Results

New York's announcement comes as universities grapple with the challenges of race-neutral admissions thanks to last June's Supreme Court decision banning affirmative action in college admissions.

Prior to the SCOTUS ruling, several states — including California, Texas, Florida, and Idaho — had already banned affirmative action. In response, universities in those states implemented top 10% plans similar to what New York has proposed, though with varying success.

The strategy presumes that high-achieving students from underresourced communities will gain a greater opportunity to attend college, smoothing the pathway for both low-income and racial minority students.

Texas, for example, launched its Texas Top Ten Percent Plan in 1997 after a federal appellate court ruled in Hopwood v. Texas that the state's affirmative action system was unconstitutional.

The plan guaranteed students in the top 10% of their high school class automatic admission to any public university in the state. In 2009, Texas amended the policy, raising the threshold to 6-7% for the University of Texas at Austin.

Yet as an Educational Testing Service report points out, theory doesn't always translate into practice.

One reason is cost. Many students in low-income communities simply cannot afford to attend a four-year university. As a result, those who are admitted are less likely to enroll.

Moreover, those students, even though they represent the top tier of their high school class, aren't necessarily ready for college.

The race-poverty correlation is far from perfect, the report concludes, and a great many students of color, including many of those best prepared for college, are not in such schools, and the schools that do have double segregation by race and class tend to be the very schools that are the least effective in preparing students for college ...

In fact, a 2017 report from New York University speculated on whether a 10% admissions plan would work in New York City. It determined that it would likely have a minimal impact on the representation of Black and Latino students in CUNY bachelor's programs because, among other reasons, eligible students might not apply or enroll if admitted.

Direct Admissions Programs Becoming Increasingly Popular

New York's plan, however, takes a more aggressive approach to recruiting high-achieving students, offering them direct admission to the state's four-year colleges.

Direct admissions has grown in popularity in recent years. Under such a program, universities accept students who satisfy certain criteria even before they apply, offering them a place in the entering class. Students then must complete the application process pro forma.

In the wake of the SCOTUS ruling, the Education and Justice departments issued a Q&A document outlining various ways colleges can operate in a post-affirmative action world. Direct admissions was one tactic they recommended.

Last fall, the University of Wisconsin system launched its direct admissions program for 10 of the system's 13 institutions, following similar efforts in Georgia and Indiana, which uses the term pre-admissions.

Ten states now have some form of direction admissions, with others likely on the horizon.

This fall, [direct admissions] has been the clear trend in state higher ed policy, Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, told Inside Higher Ed. I think it's really going to take off.

On a broader scale, the Common Application, more “commonly” known as the Common App, piloted a direct admissions program in 2021 focused on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Tennessee, Virginia, and Maryland. Approximately 3,300 students were selected to receive offers, resulting in more than 800 students enrolling.

In 2023, the Common App expanded its program to include 70 colleges and universities across 28 states. More than 300,000 first-generation and low-income students received admission offers.

Based on its results thus far, the Common App concluded that students were more likely to apply through direct admissions and that the Black, Latino/a, and first-generation students were most positively impacted.

This program just looks talented, college-ready students in the face and says, You will be successful here, said David Burge, vice president for enrollment management at George Mason University, one of the institutions participating in the Common App's initiative. ... I think it's very possible that in five to 10 years, you'll see that this could very well become the new model of how most institutions are looking at making their admission decisions.