New program accepts students to college without applying, taking tests

A new program could help more local students get accepted to multiple Washington state universities – without them ever applying.  

The Guaranteed Admissions Program, or GAP, is now available to students in the Kennewick, Richland and Kiona-Benton City school districts.  

Students must have a minimum 3.0 grade-point average and be on schedule to complete their foundational “college track” courses in high school.  

The three districts are among 66 districts or schools participating on an opt-in basis by sharing data on students, unless a family opts out. This is how students could receive five letters of admission to state schools, before applying or taking the SAT or ACT. 

If a student meets standard guaranteed admission requirements, they’d follow up with an application to make it official and check on scholarship eligibility. 

Schools that are part of the program include nearly all of Washington’s public colleges: Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, The Evergreen State College, Washington State University and Western Washington University. Not on the list is the University of Washington.  

“Our public baccalaureate institutions are really just repackaging programs that have existed for a while in a new way to centralize and streamline that for students,” said Julie Garver of Council of Presidents. “We need to make sure we are carrying the message that our schools want Washington students. We want to welcome them into our institutions, and students can go to college here, if there is a desire.” 

The GAP is being spearheaded by the Council of Presidents, an association made up of Washington’s six public baccalaureate-degree granting universities. The council employs three people and describes itself as “a common voice for the public baccalaureate sector” and a “trusted resource for decision-makers on issues affecting public higher education.” 

Closing the gap 

It’s no coincidence the acronym for the new program spells the word “gap,” as the council is focused on closing the gap between high school graduates and the interest in four-year public higher education, as 40% of Washington high school graduates do not attend any college after high school, including both two-year and four-year institutions.  

“I’ve been in Washington since ’07, and we have ranked 45% or below almost that whole entire time,” Garver said.  

The pandemic, of course, did not help, as the Seattle Times reported enrollment dropped nearly 7% across all four-year institutions in Washington between fall 2019 and fall 2021, with the largest drop at Evergreen, which saw enrollment decrease by nearly 30%.  

The council said Washington ranks 48th among states for participation in four-year public higher education at the undergraduate level for U.S. population ages 20-34, besting only Massachusetts and Illinois. 

Finding the source of that poor ranking is the nut that hasn’t quite been cracked. Garver called the issue “complex,” with no one reason to blame.  

“We don’t have great data, both qualitative and quantitative, with families in Washington to say what is it exactly. Is it a pinch point around finances? Is it a perception that a four-year degree doesn’t have value? The student debt issue? Our sector is interested in having conversations about how the public baccalaureates could do some firm data so we can understand that. There’s a lot of things that adults think that aren’t even on the radar of students or families,” she said. 

Hanford High School Counselor Julianne Atencio sees a wide range of interests in post-graduation paths, including trade schools and the military. “I think that whatever we can do to have students understand there’s a path for them after school is a great option, including those kids who don’t know exactly what they want to do,” she said. 

After the pandemic, the Council of Presidents learned students crave certainty, Garver said.  

“There are multiple ways to go to college. Helping students have clear objectives about one way they may get in, opens up the whole conversation around admissions, and that you are college material. We want to reach the students in Washington who are capable of getting that degree, but who may, for a variety of reasons, opt themselves out of that pathway,” she said. 

High interest  

The GAP is building on a pilot program launched last year. The council expected to partner with about 10 districts when it first put feelers out last year. 

Instead, more than 50 districts and individual schools signed up.  

The association was forced to build the initiative while launching the pilot, making adjustments along the way.  

“We had 200 unique applicants we would never have picked up in any of our recruitment, or any of our processes, who were picked up through the GAP last year,” Garver said. 

During a fall 2022 tour of the state, the council continued to get the word out, and by the end of September, it had data-sharing agreements and a letter of support from superintendents or principals in time to launch the program in dozens more Washington locations for the current school year, and the association is keeping a list for those to add in the future. 

There’s no dollar figure connected to the program, which was created using existing resources and staff. All participating schools, except WWU, already had a framework in place for guaranteed admissions, so the process was simplified.  

“Through the GAP, students recognize our commitment to them and realize our institutions want them to continue to learn and thrive in Washington. The GAP also motivates students to continue excelling and helps them discover meaningful career options that go beyond grades and GPAs,” said Jana Jaraysi, director of admissions for Eastern Washington University. 

With no overhead and high interest, it begs the question: Could GAP expand to support all 295 public school districts in Washington state? 

“That is our goal,” Garver said. “There are two limits to this. One, we need to be aware of staffing resources with our K-12 partners and with the processing for our institutions. I don’t think it’d be a lot of staffing to add, potentially a part-time person. The other barrier for a district is we have to have a data-sharing agreement, and that’s a very homegrown process, so that would be challenging to grow to 295. Not impossible but challenging.” 

Garver anticipates future legislation could help streamline the program further to allow more participants. The council also is starting the conversation earlier, engaging juniors and seniors this year to familiarize them in enough time to ready them for admission by 12th grade.  

“When we talk to our K-12 partners, they were very clear there’s a lot of noise in high school,” Garver said. “Senior year is extremely noisy with all kinds of things and freshman year is really noisy with a lot of stuff coming in. So how do we do this strategically that we’re not adding to the noise, because we don’t want students to shut that out too early.” 

The hope is that the light touch communication begins in 11th grade with word trickling down from older siblings and students.  

Garver believes they’re also up against a perception that Washington’s higher education is elitist and not open to B- or C-grade students, or those who took applied courses or a gap year.  

“We are trying to communicate that you have six institutions, some with multiple campuses, that are really different, and they’re there to provide a variety of options for Washington students to find that right fit,” she said. 

Still, Garver recognizes there are more students with housing or food insecurity or living in poverty, and thinks these issues need to be addressed globally so that students can consider college.  

The council expects employers to create approximately 373,000 net new jobs in the state by 2026, with more than two-thirds of those expected to require a post-high school credential.  

“What we’re really excited about is the power of a student who did not think they could go to college, walking into a counselor’s office with five admissions, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, what do I do next? I didn’t even know I could go to college,’ ” Garver said. 

Combine this with the first-generation families or those who have an outdated perception on admission, and Garver hopes the GAP is changing the overall idea on accessibility to Washington state’s public universities. 

“College doesn’t look like perhaps what your parents or what you may think it looks like on TV,” she said. 

The GAP might catch students who didn’t think college was an option for them, Atencio said. “They’ve already heard it from their school, ‘Yeah, you can do this,’ but maybe hearing it from the college is going to give them that extra push of, ‘Wow, they really do want me,’ ” she said. 

The GAP is part of a three-year data-sharing agreement, and expected to last well beyond that, so this admission offer isn’t likely to expire with current high school students. 

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