College access and college admissions are closely related, essentially the two sides of the gateway that determines who can enroll in (and ultimately complete) a college education. On a very basic level, college access refers to the preparatory work that must be done in order for a student to knock on a college’s door with the genuine possibility of being let in and being able to earn a degree. College admissions—at least from the standpoint of admissions officers who work at postsecondary institutions—is about how best to evaluate whether to let that student in.
With a growing emphasis on college and career readiness, coupled with ongoing national efforts to increase dramatically the number of people in the United States who hold a postsecondary credential or degree, issues of college access and college admissions are bound to gain more attention and scrutiny in the coming years. This section of Story Starters offers key reports, articles and other resources that examine the issues that affect the process through which students matriculate in higher education.
Of course, there are high degrees of variability in both the criteria different colleges use to select the students they enroll and the backgrounds and preparation of those students who are applying.
Efforts to improve college access primarily focus on the student groups that the postsecondary community often refers to as “underserved.” This term includes first-generation college students; students from racial groups that have been “historically underrepresented” in higher education such as African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans; students from low-income households; and immigrant students or the children of immigrants. College access organizations also often work with students in foster care. In recent times, some college access organizations have expanded their work beyond serving just traditional high school-age students and have begun to work with adults and GED-earners.
For many of the students in these groups, the process of applying to college—and the pursuit of a degree—involve layers of decisions that they might be the first in their households to make. The National College Access Network, a Washington, D.C.-based association that serves as an umbrella group for organizations that help students plan for college, emphasizes three components it deems essential for these students to gain access to higher education: “plan, prepare and pay for college.” Planning and preparing involve students’ taking and completing the proper secondary school coursework to be capable of entry-level college courses, or “college ready” as this status is called by educators, advocates and policymakers. Even then, some students struggle in higher education. Remediation rates among college students are high, a circumstance that challenges the students placed in such courses and the colleges in which they are enrolled: Only 30 percent of students who take one remedial reading course go on to earn a degree within eight years, according to some studies.
The “planning” component of college access also involves helping students navigate the processes of selecting colleges to apply to and completing those applications. Some college access programs offer counselors to help students make these choices. Others offer more than just advice: Some offer academic preparation, such as SAT prep classes and tutoring. These tests can be a critical part of the college access equation because the students who tend to be underrepresented at colleges and universities often are the same students whose scores on these admissions tests are less competitive. Some college access programs even offer scholarships and internships.
Another key aspect of efforts to improve disadvantaged students’ access to higher education is financial aid. Some college access programs focus on counseling students about financial aid, both what it is and how to apply for it. This includes helping students understand and fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) but it can also include helping students decide which financial aid packages or offers from a particular college are best for a particular student and family, based on factors that range from the student’s career aims to his or her family’s ability to pay.
In recent years, the rise of “merit aid” has become a central aspect of discussions of financial aid and college access. To attract the students they most want to enroll, many colleges offer these students scholarships and grants—referred to as merit aid—regardless of their actual financial need. Critics of this practice argue that those funds would be more effectively used to improve access for low-income or otherwise underrepresented students.
While college access work is generally done on behalf of students who are still in high school as they prepare to apply for college, the work of college admissions—at least among college admissions officers at colleges and universities—involves making the actual decisions about admittance, financial aid and scholarship awards. For college admissions officers, the key question is how best to determine which students are most academically prepared for their college. A secondary question considered by selective universities is which students are the “best fit” for their campus, meaning which ones will be able to make contributions—both inside and outside of the classroom—that will enrich the overall learning experience for everyone.
When it comes to determining the academic readiness of students, admissions officers rely on tests such as the SAT, the ACT, Advanced Placement (AP) tests, and International Baccalaureate (IB) credentials (both subject tests and the diploma), to offset perceived grade inflation or other ambiguities in the high school transcripts of applicants. On the other end of the spectrum, however, there also is a trend of colleges’ making the SAT or ACT an optional part of their application process. Some of the colleges that have made this decision—including Wake Forest University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute—cite that second aspect of the college admissions process—“best fit” —as a reason for dropping the requirement, given that students from underserved groups generally score lower on these tests.
The best fit question also plays a role in perhaps the most contentious issue in the college admissions debate, affirmative action, the practice a giving preference to applicants from a particular demographic group. The controversial subject has divided college campuses for decades, with arguments questioning the preferences given to students ranging from disadvantaged minorities to the children of wealthy alumni. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that universities could take race into consideration when making admissions decisions. That Supreme Court decision, however, is scheduled to be reconsidered in the fall of 2012. This ruling could have a substantial impact for college access and admissions, as national demographics show rising percentages of exact types of students who traditionally been underserved in higher education. — Jamaal Abdul-Alim, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
As consumers and the federal government push for greater transparency about such things as cost, average debt, and job-placement rates, major universities have been getting caught misrepresenting those and other numbers to improve the way they look to prospective students. (The Hechinger Report)Read More »
Most low-income students who have top test scores and grades do not even apply to the nation’s best colleges, according to a new analysis of every high school student who took the SAT in a recent year. (The New York Times)Read More »
Harvard’s senior communications officer, Jeff Neal, told NBC News the college is skeptical of admissions consulting agencies.Read More »
“While it is certainly possible that in individual cases an admissions consultant can be helpful to an applicant, we have encountered no evidence to indicate that is the case generally," Neal told NBC News in an email. "More importantly, our process — and the very wide range of information we collect about applicants — is designed to give us the broadest possible view of their qualifications, regardless of whether they used a consultant or not.” (NBC News)
This May 2012 article looks at a recently released college access study from the National Association of System Heads and Education Trust. The study found that while the college enrollment rates for students increased, their graduation rates did not improve enough to close the graduation gap significantly. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
This article from May 2012 examines the struggles that many students and families have faced in financing the costs of a college degree. It emphasizes the consumer side of the issue, tracing a few families as they navigate the steps of picking—and paying for—their kids to enroll in college. (Miami Herald)Read More »
At this moment, a new migration is under way from the military to the college campus. More than half a million veterans who served after September 11, 2001, were enrolled in college classes last year under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Thousands more are expected in the coming years as roughly two million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan return home. Though their passage through the college gates might not have the same sweeping effect it did on the post-World War II generation, optimism is running strong that the successful transition of today's veterans to higher education—and gainful employment beyond—might be a balm for a nation nervous about its economic future. (CHE)Read More »
Written in February 2012, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court decided to consider an affirmative action in college admissions case originating in Florida, this article examines the prospects—and potential consequences—of the pending ruling. The story offers a concise summary of some of the court’s previous rulings on the controversial practice. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
This December 2011 article looks at a side effect of an emerging trend. As public colleges as universities enroll more international and out-of-state students—who pay higher tuition prices—Asian-American students are alleging that they are being rejected and replaced with students from China and other Asian nations. (Bloomberg News)Read More »
This November 2011 report looks at a key dilemma in many college admission/financial aid decisions: merit aid. As colleges compete to attract the students deemed most desirable—generally because of credentials such as high test scores or grade point averages—scholarship money that might have been directed to students with greater financial need often gets redirected to the more coveted applicants. (Hechinger Report)Read More »
EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. We know about the stress many students face when applying to selective colleges, but what about the anxiety admissions deans face when deciding who gets admitted into their schools? (NBC News/TODAY)Read More »
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. With skyrocketing numbers of applicants and declining percentages of students accepted, how are admissions offices handling the multiple pressures they face? Are schools bringing in more and more accomplished students, or just the same kind of enrollment class compared to students from a decade ago? (The Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
SourcesClick to View (opens in new tab)
Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
At a time of increasing national concern about debt levels of college students, a plurality of college admissions directors in a new survey by Inside Higher Ed indicated that current average loan volume for undergraduates is reasonable -- and 22 percent of all admissions directors and 28 percent of those at private colleges would be comfortable with the average student debt being even higher than it is now. (Inside Higher Ed)
Using the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks and ACT® test scores, the Condition of College & Career Readiness reports provide national and state snapshots of college readiness of the graduating seniors of the class of 2012 who took the ACT in high school.Read More »
This website maintained by a leader in college admissions tests offers reports and data on issues such as “The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2011” and examinations of achievement gaps among students from different backgrounds. (ACT)Read More »
This page on the College Board’s website offers links to reports and data involving the organization’s chief standardized tests (PSAT, SAT, AP, and others).Read More »
The College Board’s center offers a considerable amount of research regarding college access and admissions, including a “Young Men of Color Initiative” and a “Trends in Higher Education” series.Read More »
The Lumina Foundation — a prominent influence in higher education policymaking and philanthropy — looks at how quickly the nation is progressing toward the foundation’s goal of having 60 percent of the U.S. population attain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. “In 2010, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 — working-age adults — who held a two- or four-year college degree was 38.3 percent,” according to the report. “The rate is increasing slowly but steadily. In 2009, the rate was 38.1 percent, and in 2008 it was 37.9 percent.” (Lumina Foundation)Read More »
The NSCRC examined its databases of information on college students to produce a series of reports that look at national trends in student persistence, mobility, concurrent enrollment, along with information regarding adult learners. (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center)Read More »
The Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice and the Education Conservancy gathered 180 leaders in admissions for colleges across the country to examine the practices they used to choose which students to enroll. The report concludes that the process is an “inwardly focused selective admissions system – one that has evolved to advance individual interests of colleges while falling short of serving the ideals traditionally associated with higher education. The values and behaviors this system signals as important, and its tendency to reward only a narrow band of students, undermine progress toward our nation’s educational attainment goals – and by extension, the social, economic, and civic vitality of our nation’s future.” (CERPP and the Education Conservancy)Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- Look at the application and admission numbers for the universities you cover. How selective are they with regard to how many students get accepted, and how/why has that acceptance rate changed in recent years? In particular, look at the acceptance and enrollment numbers for underserved students relative to the demographics of the regions these universities serve.
- Look at the organizations that are members of the National College Access Network. Are there particular college access programs or organizations in the community you cover? If so, what types of students do they work with and what kind of results have organizations achieved for students?
- Among the first-year students who enroll at the colleges you cover, what percentage have to take remedial courses? Has that percentage increased over the years? What percentage of students who take remedial courses during their first year go on to earn a degree from that college? What are high schools, college access organizations, and the colleges and universities doing to addressing such issues of college readiness?
- What are the average amounts of student debt incurred by graduates of the colleges you cover? Many selective universities have started to offer financial aid packages that minimize the amount of student loans undergraduates have to take out. How are colleges and access organizations advising students about debt?
- Among the selective universities in your region, are students’ scores on admissions tests such as the SAT and ACT becoming more or less important? Have any of these colleges gone test-optional in recent years?
The National College Access Network (NCAN) is a Washington, D.C.-based organization that provides resources and support to member organizations. NCAN defines a college access organization as “an entity that helps under-served students plan, prepare and pay for college.” An agency need not do all three of those things but must do at least one to be considered a college access organization. NCAN has a directory of college access organizations by state, and the leaders of such organizations are often eager to highlight their work or help shine light on issues within their field.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) offers guidance for those involved in various aspects of the college admission process, both at the collegiate and secondary school level. NACAC’s policies govern everything from how a college can represent and promote itself and its services to when a college should announce financial aid decisions to students. They also address appropriate and ethical conduct for high school counselors and college admissions officers. NACAC also publishes data on trends in college admissions through an annual report called The State of College Admission. The report is based on surveys of high school counselors and representatives of colleges and universities.
The College Board is known primarily for their SAT and Advanced Placement tests, which play critical roles in the college admissions process, both for students and admissions officers across the country. The College Board, however, does also have an Advocacy & Policy Center that actively researches key issues of college access and success. Their annual reports regarding trends in college costs and financial aid are key tools of the higher education beat.
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators is the leading professional organization for university officials who manage the processes that award students financial assistance. Their advocacy and policy work on college affordability and student debt can serve as useful resources in reporting, and their national conference often highlights key issues regarding college costs.
The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles offers a number of resources regarding issues of college access and admissions, the most notable of which is their annual Freshman Survey. The survey gathers a range of information — from their academic background to their social lives — from the incoming class of college student
The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) counts more than 11,000 postsecondary admissions and registration professionals around the world as its members. The association can be a helpful source of information regarding emerging trends on the university side of the college admissions process.
The Institute for College Access and Success is an advocacy group that works to promote college affordability. Based in San Francisco, they can offer perspectives on various aspects of college costs, such as net price calculators, student debt, and income-based repayment of student loans.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.