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Opinion Connecting college access, admissions and completion

University of Maryland’s admissions director, Shannon Gundy, surprises Bemnet Zewdie in 2015 with news that he had been accepted at the university. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

As deadlines are nearing for applications to many selective colleges, here is a viewpoint on the admissions process from an executive in the education company Hobsons and a longtime school superintendent. 

By Stephen M. Smith and Morton Sherman

Year after year, many high school students apply to college without any clear idea of how much it would cost them or whether their families could afford it. Those from low-income families often are easily discouraged by high sticker prices and are sometimes less likely to know about financial aid options. But that aid is only one facet of the complex college admissions process.

Students must also identify institutions that would be a good fit academically, geographically and socially, and they must navigate different timelines and sets of expectations for each institution. Research suggests that low-income students apply to fewer institutions than their higher-income peers, and apply to even fewer still if their standardized test scores are in the middle or low range, limiting their options and making them less likely to end up at the best-fit institution. Forty-one percent of low-income students reported relying on their school counselor during the application process, compared with only 28 percent of their higher-income peers. That poses a challenge in some states, where student to counselor ratios can top 850 to 1.

Most important, many students and parents find the lack of transparency in admissions decisions frustrating, identifying it as the “most confusing aspect of the college application process” in one survey.

College admissions shouldn’t be this complicated. And, we shouldn’t have a process that puts at a disadvantage those students whose parents never attended college or those who come from under-resourced high schools with high student-to-counselor ratios. This year, we’ve seen promising moves to simplify parts of the admissions process. A new Department of Education policy makes the application for federal aid available three months earlier — at about the same time students start applying to college. Increased transparency in the application process — like earlier access to information about a student’s eligibility for financial aid — will help, but there are other processes that continue to make things more difficult than they need to be.

Here are three additional ways to make the process easier for students:

1. Measure What Matters: Today, we know how many Pell Grant recipients a university is serving, but the graduation rates for Pell recipients are not public — an issue that efforts like the University Innovation Alliance are working to address. While a high overall college graduation rate can indicate quality, it can also signal that a school is refusing to take a chance on students who are capable of succeeding in college but who might need extra support to achieve their education goals. Making outcomes for low-income Pell recipients public helps show prospective students how well a university is doing in serving and graduating students like them. To meaningfully inform students and reward schools who are doing the right thing, we should shine a spotlight on colleges that are helping low-income and other at-risk students graduate.

2. Leverage Existing Policies: Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have policies in place mandating the use of Individualized Learning Plans (ILPs) to support college and career exploration, providing parents, teachers and counselors with a more holistic picture of students. Counselors across thousands of schools and districts are working with students to create e-portfolios through their ILPs. Why not leverage this existing work and the insights of counselors and school leaders to assess students’ readiness for college rather than asking students to create a completely separate portfolio for their college applications?

3. Bridge K-12 and Higher Ed: School counselors, principals and superintendents are collaborating with higher education to ensure that their students are prepared for success in college and beyond, and K-12 practitioners are actively working with college admission offices to provide a more holistic view of prospective students of all backgrounds. For example, our organizations, along with colleagues at the American Association of Community Colleges, are working to bring together K-12 schools and higher education to discuss how practices like dual enrollment programs, community service, and real-world job experience help students refine their career interests and make well-informed decisions about their postsecondary education. Out of such convenings, school superintendents have come together with higher ed leaders to develop evidence-based metrics that take a more holistic approach to college readiness, instead of relying simply on test scores. They’ve put forth indicators like class attendance, community service, industry credentials, success in advanced placement courses and completion of Algebra II as valuable things to consider in admissions. Working together, we can leverage K-12 and higher ed relationships to truly align our efforts to help students find the best-fit postsecondary opportunities, including military service, gap year programs and college, and support them so they can succeed.

As we work to improve college admissions, our guiding principles should focus on increasing transparency, eliminating complexity, and emphasizing K-12 and higher ed collaboration. Low-income, first-generation, minority, and other underrepresented college students — like all college students — should have access to the broadest possible universe of postsecondary options.

When we all work together to reduce barriers to college access, all students — and all educational institutions — benefit.

Stephen M. Smith, president of advising and admissions solutions at Hobsons, is a co-founder of Naviance and serves on the boards of directors of College Possible and the National College Access Network. Mort Sherman is an associate executive director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and served as a superintendent for more than 25 years.