Davis & Elkins College is a small institution (just over 700 students) in a beautiful part of West Virginia surrounded by the Allegheny Highlands. Like most colleges, they accept most applicants. This year, the college accepted about 700 students out of 975 applicants, with a target class of 250 to 300.
In the fall, the college plans to consider some students who actually didn’t even apply for admission. These will be students who have created profiles through Sage Scholars, which has offered a service to help students shop for college since 1995. This year, in addition to showcasing students that colleges may be interested in recruiting to apply, Sage will also offer some of its several hundred members the opportunity to view profiles (which will include interests, grades, and test scores students have) and is accepting students directly.
Rosemary M. Thomas, executive vice president of Davis & Elkins, said, “I think it’s a great way for students to explore all kinds of options.” One thing will be missing: “They will not receive a rejection letter. It removes the fear of failure.”
By creating a profile, “you’re just saying ‘I’m interested in college.'”
Thomas said she could enroll 25 to 30 students that way in the program’s first year and more later. He doesn’t believe it will completely replace traditional admissions — Davis & Elkins will probably keep it for West Virginia residents. As Thomas said, the college is known in the country but not well known outside of it. Faculty will look for profiles of students who say they want to study in West Virginia or a similar setting, or who value outdoor learning, or who want one of the Davis & Elkins academic programs (even though they probably haven’t heard of the college).
Sage Scholars expects approximately 40 to 50 faculty to participate in the program in its first year. James B. Johnston, Sage’s president, said he does not foresee charging students to participate, nor faculty. It does not charge any group to participate in its recruiting and scholarship programs. The money for the 700,000 students in its database comes from companies. Employers pay to offer Sage as a benefit to all employees to help their children apply to colleges. Financial organizations for customers are also joining. Johnston says that means his group of students (not all of whom are high school seniors) has a characteristic that many colleges look for: the ability to pay for all or a large portion of their college education. He expects it to be a major selling point for his 450 member colleges.
These are private colleges, but most accept a large percentage of applicants. But the group as a whole includes Rollins College, Center College, Loyola University New Orleans and the University of Rochester. It does not include the Ivy League or similar institutions.
“Most of these colleges accept a high percentage of those who actually apply,” Johnston said. In the end, he said his message to colleges is “why make them go through all this crap?”
Sage and Concourse
Sage isn’t the only player looking to radically change admissions by eliminating check-ins.
Concourse is a company that started with international students and last year penetrated the US student market with a focus on Chicago. In the United States, it focuses on low-income students. Over the next year, it will expand to seven regions: New York City, Philadelphia, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Dallas, Houston and Atlanta (retained Chicago). In each of these areas, Concourse will identify colleges that serve low-income students and college counselors who will verify the accuracy of what students enter in their profiles.
Joe Morrison, CEO of Concourse, said he hadn’t heard of Sage’s new effort, but “in general, I support any organization that simplifies and streamlines the college application process for students, regardless of their demographic. I believe that proactive adoption is an idea whose time has come, so I will not be surprised if other organizations follow in our footsteps.”
The main differences between Concourse and Sage are the socioeconomic status of the students and that the colleges participating in Sage are private.
But both approaches challenge the traditional way in which reception has worked.
David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer for the National College Admissions Counseling Association, said he had not heard of Sage’s new efforts. However, he said he thought it was perfectly natural.
“The entry of additional players into the more student-centric college ‘apply’ method seems inevitable given that the pandemic has spurred new ways of thinking about reaching voters and customers across the economy,” he said via email. “In the context of college admissions, our members are thinking more critically about how best to serve students and meet institutional needs, including transformation processes to enable a more effective way to match the supply and demand for higher education.”
NACAC is currently considering changes to the admissions process to make it fairer and will convene a panel to consider the changes.
Steven M. Corey, president of Olivet College in Michigan, which plans to participate, said the demographics of the applicant pool and enrolled students show the breadth of potential of Sage’s idea. Although Sage is geared toward more affluent applicants, more than half of Olivet’s students are eligible for Pell Grants, and more than half are first-generation.
“This approach suits me perfectly,” he said.
In fact, Corey said he’s really in favor of moving college enrollment to high schools. If a student took (and passed) certain college prep courses, he could see colleges saying that students would be automatically accepted.
Robert Oliva, assistant vice president for enrollment management at St. Francis College in New York, said he was waiting for details on the program from Sage but was inclined to participate.
Oliva said he views the application process more as building relationships with students than accepting the students themselves. (The college accepted 3,480 of the 4,200 who applied as freshmen in the fall.)
He said he views the Saga idea as one that would allow St. Francis to work with students earlier in the school year, and he sees that as a plus.
Not surprisingly, colleges that have particularly good admissions years (with the traditional system) are less interested in alternatives. Duquesne University, for example, is having a record year in admissions.
Joel Bauman, senior vice president for enrollment management, said by email that he would be more comfortable with a “pre-admission” decision than an admissions decision. Students could be told that if everything checks out and they continue to perform at least as well as they have done so far, they are likely to be accepted. But I would like that assurance.
Still, Bauman said, “I’m generally in favor of alternative and more transparent systems for promoting such behavioral support programs before college and college.” He added: “I think programs like this have broken the ice with an unofficial nod to talent identification programs, programs that identify, recruit and train potential candidates to prepare for admission to top schools, like Questbridge and Posse, and now these programs can open other populations, such as a broad middle-class category that is not targeted at highly selective groups of institutions.”
Richard Ekman, former president of the Council of Independent Colleges, recently joined the Sage board and thinks the idea will work. But he warns not to expect dramatic changes in the first year.
“I think many colleges have a hard time admitting how open their admissions choices really are. For these colleges, the pre-admissions approach may have some advantages in streamlining the process for students and families who we know are often confused by it,” he said. “These are often first-generation and low-income students that colleges eagerly seek, but can easily fall by the wayside and fail to complete and submit admissions applications.”
He said Sage’s approach is “prudent” because it will “start with a small number of institutions where the college and Sage have a history of mutual support. “
Ekman added: “The downside, of course, is that colleges usually like to brag about how selective their admissions processes are. The Faculty and Sage will need careful PR to describe this initiative in a way that prevents others from characterizing it as a lowering of standards.”