She’s in: First-gen college student Olivia Galloway learned she was accepted to her dream school before she even applied. Credit: Courtesy of Young Women’s College Prep Charter School of Rochester

Growing up in a single-parent household in Rochester, New York, Olivia Galloway dreamed of being the first in her family to attend college. She worked hard at her high school, a charter school called Young Women’s College Prep, taking no fewer than seven AP classes. But her mother, a home health aide, didn’t have the resources to splash on expensive extracurricular college prep, nor the college experience to guide her daughter. Olivia had set her sights on a nearby college with a well-regarded nursing program—she hopes to become an obstetrics nurse—but, not knowing the process, she missed the deadline to apply.

This past fall, however, a college counselor at Olivia’s school introduced her and fellow seniors to a new program that reversed the admissions process, making it easier for underprivileged students like her. Instead of filling out piles of forms and sending them to each school, Olivia simply created a profile on an online platform, which colleges pay to access. She added information about her academics and her personal interests—she enjoys reading, writing, baking, and cooking—and then waited for the acceptance letters to start rolling in. Hardly 24 hours passed before she started hearing from schools. “It was so surprising and truly amazing to see all my options open overnight,” she told me this summer. “I was contacted by 12 different colleges and all of them gave me amazing scholarships.”

Olivia ultimately accepted an offer from Daemen University, the Buffalo-area school whose regular admissions deadline she had missed. Thanks to Daemen’s offer, Olivia says, she most likely won’t have to take out student loans. “My reaction to Daemen was excitement,” she told me. “I was grateful for all of the universities that reached out to me, but Daemen was like a breath of fresh air—it was close to home, had the program I wanted, and had a beautiful dreamy campus!”

Olivia’s experience illustrates an emerging national trend known as “direct admission”—a low-cost alternative that could revolutionize the way students of lesser means apply to college. Programs like the one Olivia used, which is called Greenlight Match, have expanded dramatically in recent years, growing from one program in Idaho in 2015 to multiple states and hundreds of colleges today. Some states, such as Idaho, Hawaii, Illinois, and Connecticut, are running or developing direct admission programs themselves, while other programs are operated by private companies.

For most high school students, applying to college is an anxiety-filled game of wait-and-see that starts after they send off applications and may well end in rejection. But it’s also a game of resources, one that rich, well-connected families are primed to win. Parents with lower incomes don’t have the means for SAT tutors, application coaches, and visits to multiple schools in far-flung states. If they didn’t go to college, they may not know how to pick “reach” and “safety” schools, or fill out a financial aid application. As a result, these parents and students may apply to too few schools, or maybe, out of discouragement, none at all. In other words, not only is the college application process stressful for all students, but it is also especially ill-suited to students from lower-income, less educated families—that is, to people like Olivia.

This new approach is already producing results for students, as well as filling critical needs for colleges and the workforce more broadly. Idaho, which in 2015 became the first state to adopt direct admission, saw an 11 percent boost in undergraduate enrollment over the next four years, according to a 2019 study. That’s welcome news for universities, which are fighting even harder to attract students now amid sagging enrollment numbers that haven’t recovered since the pandemic. Meanwhile, the national job market is producing far more roles for college graduates than it has workers with degrees to fill them (although the demand for college grads has cooled somewhat as people return to the workforce post-pandemic). And college-educated workers earn a median 84 percent more than those without a postsecondary degree. Ultimately, by getting more students into college—and especially ones from low-income backgrounds—direct admission promises to help grow the economy, fight inequality, and keep higher education afloat. 

In 2010, only 45 percent of Idaho’s high school seniors enrolled in an institution of higher education—the least in the country. The Potato State also boasted lower-than-average incomes and was having trouble keeping its young people from moving away. In response, the Idaho Board of Education set an ambitious goal: It would increase the state’s overall college completion rate among 25-to-34-year-olds, which was 34.7 percent that year, to 60 percent by 2020. In 2015, in support of that goal, legislators adopted a direct admission program that notified all graduating seniors who met a preset academic threshold that they were accepted to state universities. Two years into Idaho’s new program, 48 percent of the class of 2017 immediately enrolled in college after high school graduation.

Proactively letting students know where they’re admitted reduces friction compared to traditional admission, says Jennifer Delaney, an associate professor of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Delaney has coauthored a handful of studies that found, among other things, that direct admission “is a low-cost and effective mechanism to increase institutional and statewide enrollment in postsecondary education.” In addition to the 11 percent rise in college enrollment that Delaney reported between 2015 and 2019, she also credits the program with helping to reverse out-of-state migration. 

Within a few years, other states began catching on. In 2017, South Dakota launched its “Proactive Admissions” program, offering high school seniors with sufficient test scores admission to the state’s public universities and technical colleges. In 2019, the Illinois legislature authorized funding to develop a pilot program for the class of 2021. (The pilot was never launched, according to Delaney, and Illinois lawmakers are still debating a proposal to fund the program.) Hawaii and Minnesota have adopted similar programs, and Connecticut is designing its own system as well. This year, the University of Michigan–Flint announced a direct admission partnership with six nearby high schools, and the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay became the first in its state to embrace direct admission from area schools.

Meanwhile, for-profit companies like Concourse, which created Greenlight Match, have gotten into the game. The program that Olivia Galloway used is a little different from “direct” admission, where students are automatically admitted to certain institutions based on their GPA and other factors. Greenlight Match is an example of “reverse admission,” where students aren’t accepted by default but they still avoid the traditional process of sending out applications in favor of creating one universal profile that schools can peruse. Colleges contract with Concourse and pay a fee to access its admissions program, which on the other side coordinates with high schools and community organizations to reach the students those universities want.

Importantly, rejection letters are never part of the process. That prevents students from getting discouraged and keeps their eyes on their goal: a better education. Michael Dannenberg, a senior fellow at College Promise, a national nonprofit that advocates for higher education access, told me this was a “game changer” for first-generation and low-income students. By proactively sending out acceptance letters, these programs preempt the danger that students won’t apply to college because they think they’re going to get rejected. “It stops students from in effect saying to themselves, ‘I reject applying to you because I think you’re going to reject accepting me,’ ” Dannenberg says. “It cuts that phenomenon off at the pass.”

Concourse was founded in 2017 by Joe Morrison, a tech entrepreneur who had previously consulted for university marketing teams and built trading platforms for banks. His ambition, according to the company’s website, was to “provide students around the world with universal access to higher education.” In 2021, the company launched its first reverse admission platform, Global Match, which helped institutions enroll international students through a similar process where colleges “apply” to students. Forty-seven international students participated in the first Global Match pilot. “They received 180 admission offers within the first week, a tremendous start,” Morrison told me.

In fall 2021, Concourse joined with EAB, a company that specializes in education research, marketing, and enrollment, to launch Greenlight Match, which essentially applied the Global Match model domestically in the U.S. “The goal was to create more college access for first-generation, low-income, and other historically underserved U.S. students,” Morrison said. The first step in that process was the launch of a pilot program in the Chicago area in which 658 students participated. Concourse coordinated with community-based organizations to find students across nearly 50 high schools who fit the underserved demographic they wanted to reach: low-income families and first-generation college applicants (about half the pool, according to a survey of the participants). That test case generated nearly 2,000 admission offers and more than $135 million in scholarship and financial aid offers, Morrison said.

In the fall of 2022, Concourse became a subsidiary of EAB and expanded to several other U.S. regions, including Rochester, New York, where Olivia Galloway grew up. Now in its second year, Greenlight Match has grown fourfold to serve some 2,600 students and has secured more than 18,000 admission offers—or about seven per student—and a total of $1.1 billion in scholarship offers, according to Morrison. This fall, Concourse is planning a full national rollout of Greenlight Match.

Delaney, the direct admission researcher, told me programs like Greenlight Match are an improvement over traditional admissions in two ways. First, by pushing information to students instead of relying on students to search for colleges, she said, it “reduces the need for social and cultural capital to navigate the college search process and likely makes the process more equitable for students of different backgrounds within the Concourse system.”

Indeed, in researching this story, I found that students like the fact that through the system, colleges search for them instead of the other way around. One student told me she likes it more than the Common Application, which enables students to apply to multiple colleges at once. “In the Common App you apply for the colleges you want, you look for the college,” Lydia, an undocumented student and aspiring dental surgeon from Chicago who used Concourse to get into Knox College, where she got a $59,000 annual scholarship to cover the $63,000 annual tuition in 2022, told me. “And in Concourse the college looks for you.”

The other advantage of direct and reverse admission, Delaney says, is that the process offers a guarantee of acceptance, which takes away uncertainty and allows students to plan ahead. “Students no longer need to guess which institutions will admit them, but instead already know where they have been admitted,” Delaney told me. “There is also value in the guarantee since it gives students ‘a bird in the hand’ and a clearly defined pathway through which they can enter a postsecondary institution.”

For all those advantages, direct admission can’t replace every aspect of the traditional college search process. For one thing, Morrison noted, most direct admission programs generate acceptance letters automatically, based on minimum GPA thresholds. But the programs don’t necessarily give students personalized guidance on the colleges that have proactively accepted them, including what major to pursue or whether the campus culture is likely to be a good fit. After the acceptance letters arrive, some students must still submit a more traditional application in order to complete the enrollment process and, often, to learn what kinds of scholarships will be available to them. 

Because of those limitations, Morrison believes that the “student-first” reverse admission strategy pioneered by his company has some advantages. Students fill out simple profiles—the process usually takes about 30 minutes, he said—with their grades, academic interests, financial details, hobbies, and personal aspirations. This allows universities to personalize offers to students, letting them know which majors might best fit their interests and abilities, which scholarships they are guaranteed to receive, and when they can start school. After that, students complete a brief form for each offer they would like to pursue, receive official admission materials, and may then chat online with the institution’s representatives before making a final decision. 

“As the ‘demographic cliff’ approaches and higher education becomes increasingly competitive, it is widely agreed that higher education institutions need to innovate and find better ways to reach and attract students in order to build their incoming classes,” Morrison told me. “Direct admission is a step in the right direction, taking some of the guesswork out of the process for students. Reverse admission takes this concept much further, enabling universities to reach out to students proactively and make personalized, informative, compelling admission offers and provide a more student-centric, welcoming admission process.”

As direct admission has grown in popularity, other players have jumped into the market. In 2019, the nonprofit-run Common Application joined the bandwagon, allowing colleges to offer “non-binding guaranteed admission” to graduating students in their states who have filled out the Common App and who meet a minimum GPA set by those schools. Last year, Sage Scholars, a student financial aid company since 1995, signed up 23 private universities for a direct admission program, including Loyola University and Washington & Jefferson College. Also in 2022, Niche, another private admission platform, launched a direct admission partnership with 15 more universities.

Experts who study direct admission praise its potential to simplify the college application process and help students who traditionally have been at a disadvantage. “We know from decades of research that the current college search and application process is too complex,” Taylor Odle, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, told me, “and that this complexity disadvantages already underserved students, especially first-generation students, students of color, those from low-income families, and those in rural areas.”

In a post–affirmative action world—where colleges can no longer consider the race of applicants—direct or reverse admission platforms may offer an additional advantage. Concourse already kept the race of applicants hidden—as well as their names and surnames, which also could introduce bias. As long as the programs operate in communities that serve students from historically underrepresented groups, colleges will have another way to draw applicants from diverse backgrounds. This year, Augsburg University, in Minneapolis, experimented with admitting all students through direct admission, a rousing success in terms of both increasing enrollment and attracting underprivileged students. Inside Higher Ed reported that students of color made up 73 percent of this year’s accepted class at Augsburg, up from 62 percent the prior year, and Pell Grant recipients rose from 48 to 61 percent.

Still, Odle, Delaney, and others caution that direct admission programs, and especially reverse admission platforms like Concourse, are not a panacea and do have drawbacks. These new admission systems haven’t replaced the traditional process, so if a student also wants to apply to colleges that don’t use direct admission, that’s more work, not less. The same holds true for counselors and college advisers, who must learn to navigate Concourse and the other private systems that have entered the burgeoning market. Although Concourse is constantly streamlining its system to require less and less time and effort from applicants, the emergence of competitors means that this problem won’t be going away anytime soon.

Beyond that, Odle raised questions about which colleges are participating in programs like Concourse. Among other things, he wonders: Do they offer robust financial aid? Do they have strong graduation rates? Do they serve low-income, first-generation, and students of color well? Do they offer programs that are closely aligned with the local labor market? “Connecting students to any college is generally a positive outcome if that student’s alternative was no college,” Odle said. “But connecting students to colleges that may not be prepared to serve them well or provide them with upward economic mobility could be a worse-off outcome for students.” 

At least some of Greenlight Match’s partner colleges do a creditable job of serving low-income students. The graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients at Knox College, where Lydia enrolled in 2022, is 73 percent—just one percentage point below the school’s overall graduation rate of 74 percent, and well above the national median of 58 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. Median earnings for Knox graduates are an annual $51,471, slightly above the national figure of $50,391. 

Finally, on reverse admission platforms like Concourse, what populates a student’s profile—and what assumptions will colleges make about what they see? Information that may look like an objective measure of a student’s abilities, like standardized test scores (optional on Concourse) and GPA (not optional), doesn’t include the context of a student’s background, and thus may end up reinforcing existing inequalities. “If the portfolios that colleges use to admit students mainly feature GPA and standardized test scores, we already know these pieces of information fall sharply along racial and socioeconomic lines and have led to much of the inequality we see today,” Odle said. So do extracurriculars; after all, only a certain kind of family can afford lessons in sailing or polo. 

Despite those potential snags, the school that accepted Olivia Galloway considers the experiment a success. Daemen University’s senior vice president for strategic initiatives, Greg Nayor, told me Daemen adopted direct admission in hopes of finding “high-achieving, underrepresented students.” The 2022–23 school year was Daemen’s first time using Greenlight Match, so it started off slow, only admitting and enrolling a handful of students through the program. But Nayor said Daemen officials were convinced that getting access to those students, who might not otherwise hear of the school, is well worth what they pay to participate in the program. After this test run, the university has entered a long-term partnership with Concourse. “We feel the investment in increasing college access for underrepresented students is worthwhile and part of our mission,” Nayor told me. “We are pleased with our return on our investment for this first trial year and think we will be even more pleased in years to come.”

Meanwhile, at Olivia’s high school, many other students have rave reviews for the program, as does LaQuanna Sparkman, the counselor who introduced Olivia to Greenlight Match. Sparkman told me that when her students got an offer overnight, often they would stake out a spot outside her office the next morning, eager to share the good news. “It has been a joyous experience,” she said. 

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jamaal Abdul-Alim serves as education editor at The Conversation. His articles have appeared in the Washington Monthly, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, where he worked as a senior staff writer covering federal education policy.