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Iowa is unique in offering in-state students guaranteed admission to public universities of their choice

And the process can be a balancing act for school's trying to grow revenue and follow state mandates

Aug 28, 2019 at 8:30 am
    Incoming Iowa freshmen register during orientation on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City in this 2016 photo. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    For 50-plus years, Iowa has offered guaranteed admission to any public university of an in-state student’s choosing, so long as the student meets a certain set of standards — making this state unique in the nation in its commitment to educate its own.

    Although the standards started simple in 1958 — with admission to a public university assured for Iowa high schoolers in the top half of their graduating class — the Board of Regents in 2006 updated those standards to its current set of metrics, known as the Regents Admission Index, or RAI.

    The index promises Iowans can attend the University of Iowa, Iowa State University or University of Northern Iowa as long as they achieve an RAI score of at least 245. Scores are calculated based on class rank percentile, ACT score, cumulative grade-point average and number of core high school courses taken.

    Michigan State University professor Kristen A. Renn said she doesn’t know any other states that offer such a deal.

    “Wow, that actually is the first I have heard of that,” said Renn, Michigan State’s associate dean of undergraduate studies for student success research and president of the board of directors for the national Association for the Study of Higher Education.

    “There are other states where students who are in the top 10 percent of their high school class are guaranteed admission to one of the universities — but there are more universities in those states. They don’t say, you will absolutely get to go to UCLA.”

    Regents spokesman Josh Lehman confirmed his office doesn’t know of any other states using an assured admission index like Iowa’s — an index crafted in the spirit of the board’s public mission: to oversee the state’s universities as they endeavor, among other goals, to provide diversified and high-quality programs to those seeking postsecondary study in this state.

    University administrators and board executives told The Gazette they don’t foresee dropping the index any time soon — although that doesn’t mean the institutions aren’t facing new admissions challenges, as public universities everywhere grapple with shrinking state support forcing heavier reliance on tuition and philanthropy.

    “An increasingly tiny percentage of their budget comes from the state,” Renn said.

    Iowa’s public university general education funding has tilted dramatically since 2006 — when regents adopted the modern version of the index — from nearly 50 percent state appropriations and 44 percent tuition to more than 65 percent tuition and 30 percent state funding in 2018. Looking back further to 1981, the state covered more than 77 percent of general education funding, while tuition accounted for 21 percent.

    Today’s amplified reliance on tuition — administrators are tempted to hike rates to make up for losses in state support — runs counter to the board’s public mission, along with the universities’ compulsion to price competitively as they vie for a limited pool of college-bound Iowans, more first-generation students with fewer resources and those out-of-state students with a swell of options.

    “This is where we get to the heart of the mission of the public university — to what extent is the value on educating students in-state?” MSU’s Renn said. “How important is that compared to the value of the diversity of students from out-of-state as well as the financial contributions of out-of-state and international students? It puts us in direct tension with our own goals and mission.”

    Thus administrators — including those in Iowa — find themselves trying to balance an increasingly complex operations matrix of shifting revenue sources, regional demographics, student expectations and state mandates with strident school missions in a heightened competitive landscape.

    “It’s a really three-dimensional kind of puzzle,” Renn said.

    ‘Getting on board and catching up fast’

    Admissions challenges facing institutions of higher education look different depending on location, according to Renn.

    Where universities in the northern tier and the Midwest — such as those in Iowa — face declining college-going populations, institutions in places like California, Texas and Florida are wrestling with the opposite problem of trying to expand capacity for a swelling pool of prospects.

    “The changes are not the same across the country, but there are changes in many states in how they’re managing admissions,” Renn said. “Public universities — both regional ones and larger flagships — they find themselves having to perhaps refine their recruiting strategies, be smarter about it.”

    In the Midwest, for example, everyone is chasing the same prospective out-of-towners willing to migrate from their home state.

    “We all want those bright students who can pay out-of-state tuition and come to where it’s snowy and cold,” Renn said.

    Thus college recruiters — among other things — are tapping the recent influx of “big data” to improve their prowess in bringing folks to campus.

    “There is some more sophisticated use of data, for sure,” Renn said. “The private schools have been ahead of the game because they had to. But the large publics in parts of the country losing population, we are getting on board and catching up fast.”

    Katherine Johnson Suski, Iowa State University executive director of admissions, confirmed that — reporting her institution annually hones its recruitment tactics to best suit its needs, in terms of revenue, diversity and educational mission.

    But the institutions aren’t the only ones using data to their advantage.

    Compounding demographic and funding shifts are evolving high school environments and high schoolers themselves — who are taking more college courses before graduating, better planning their pursuits and becoming increasingly keen consumers of the spike in information available on their potential higher-education homes.

    “Students are really inundated with information now,” Suski said. “They’re really more informed shoppers.”

    Instead of just snail-mail information pamphlets and brochures from the recruiting institutions, students can browse an expanding array of websites, check the growing tally of rankings, tap social media for insight and opt in to learn more from the schools themselves.

    “I think students can really get more of a feel now,” Suski said. “It’s less what the university is telling them, and more what the people associated with the university are telling them. It’s a more authentic, real experience.”

    No need ‘to do those sorts of things’

    The hyper-informed, hypercompetitive landscape, both from the student shopper perspective and the university recruitment angle, has contributed to a dynamic admissions process lush with experimentation, expansion and, in some cases, exploitation.

    “I think it is well understood that the social capital to be gained from going to a small subset of universities is very high and is worth perhaps breaking the law for,” Renn said. “That’s been true for a very long time. And that’s not going to change.”

    Referring to the recent nationwide so-called Varsity Blues investigation that nabbed more than 50 participants — including some well-known celebrities — accused of paying millions to fraudulently inflate test scores and bribe college officials to get their kids into select elite schools, Renn said she wasn’t terribly surprised.

    “As long as only 2 or 3 or 6 percent of students get into Harvard, it will be a sought-after commodity among a certain set of people who will continue to do whatever they think is necessary to get their kid there,” she said.

    Following the scandal, Iowa’s universities “did checks” to ensure they haven’t and won’t fall prey to such admissions abuse, said Jason Pontius, associate chief academic officer for the Board of Regents. They found the Iowa system to be “so transparent that there wouldn’t be any need to do those sorts of things,” Pontius said.

    Suski echoed that sentiment, stressing the transparency of Iowa’s RAI system is among the cushions protecting it from a similar scandal.

    “We have a different type of recruitment landscape here in Iowa than other states have,” she said, noting a large majority of Iowans who attend college here stay once they graduate. “It’s really unique.”

    And Suski credits the difference, in part, to efforts to make the application process as stress-free as possible, such as through the automatic admissions index.

    “Some schools play on that mystery. ‘Are you going to get in?’ ” she said. “We have a different culture here in Iowa, where there is that expectation for transparency and an equal playing field for students.”

    ‘It can be a challenge’

    The admissions index also serves Iowa students — and the universities, in some cases — in its speed, according to ISU’s Suski.

    “We can automate our admissions process,” she said, “and now some of our students can find out within a few seconds if they’re admitted to the university.”

    In that many applicants know quickly whether they’re into the Iowa university of their choice, some don’t bother applying to other schools by way of backup.

    Perhaps that’s most evident in the low use of a common regent application portal — which the board in 2015 spent $290,000 to develop and implement in hopes of improving the efficiency of the application process for would-be students.

    The idea of the portal, expected to cost $100,000 annually to maintain, was to trim the time it takes to apply to more than one of the regent universities. But out of the more than 50,000 applications that pour into the regent universities annually, only 66 completed applications through the portal for the upcoming fall semester.

    That’s the lowest it’s been since the portal’s inception — although use always has been minuscule, with just 111 completed for 2016, 96 completed for 2017, and 137 completed for 2018.

    And Suski noted another, perhaps unintended, implication of the admissions index is that it restricts the universities from having complete control over who they let it and who they reject.

    “It can be a challenge,” Suski said. “When we were growing so rapidly, there was really no way to limit that growth. We accepted everyone who was eligible for admission.”

    UI President Bruce Harreld previously has advocated for more control over the revenue levers that fund his institution — including tuition rates and admission policies. He declined, however, to comment for this story.

    Suski said she believes the challenges are outweighed by the transparency, and that it’s rooted in research.

    “It is data driven,” she said. “We know that a student who hits that 245 is very likely to be successful at any of the three regent institutions. When it comes to admission requirements, that’s pretty cut and dried.”

    Not every state and every school has that kind of data driving their admissions standards.

    “So it would be a hard sell to get rid of it when it is so successful at predicting retention and success at graduation,” she said.

    The universities do maintain some flexibility in whom they admit — in that the required admission doesn’t apply to out-of-state students, and it doesn’t prevent the schools from admitting students below the 245 threshold.

    The institutions conduct holistic reviews of those below the bar, and in 2018 about 6 percent of the combined incoming freshmen had RAI scores below 245. UNI reported the highest sub-245 freshmen proportion at 14 percent, followed by Iowa State at 7 percent, and the UI at 3 percent.

    And only 9 percent of all regent applicants in 2018 had scores under 245, with the universities admitting 33 percent of that applicant pool. Of those admitted, 50 percent enrolled, according to Board of Regents data.

    ‘Recommendations for changes’

    Iowa State about a decade ago became the first of the three regent universities to allow applicants to self-report statistics for the RAI calculation, and Suski said that’s saved admissions offices a lot of time and money.

    Because, she said, while the universities do request the documentation to back up the self-reports, they only check the documents of those they admit, who then indicate they plan to enroll.

    “So now, if we have say 19,000 applications in a year, we don’t have 19,000 students sending us a bunch of documents. Instead, we have the 6,000 students who plan to enroll sending us documents,” Suski said. “And you would be surprised, but there are very few students we have to rescind admission for. Because students generally are very honest and truthful.”

    In that the index isn’t a perfect science, the board every two years reviews the RAI performance “to evaluate its effectiveness and make recommendations for changes.”

    In the most recent review in 2017, the Regents’ Pontius said, a committee determined class-rank no longer serves as a relevant metric — as half of the applicants have no rank at all. The universities, in addressing the growing number of high schools that don’t rank their students, already were using an “alternative” index that calculated a score for those students without a class rank.

    “By the summer of 2020, we are getting rid of the primary form altogether,” he said. “The alternate will become the only one.”

    The Regents again are gearing up for another review of the forms, but Pontius urged the benefits of keeping the admission mandate — despite any qualms of its restriction on university control.

    “There are many benefits to the RAI,” he said. “It’s transparent. It’s automatic. Our formula is public. It allows you to plan out your high school classes well in advance. There’s almost no wait to whether you’re in or not. There’s very low uncertainty or stress, or it’s relatively low. And there’s a lot less need to hedge your bets by applying to lots of colleges.”

    Many national organizations suggest college-bound students apply to between five and 15 schools, according to Pontius.

    “I think most students in Iowa don’t need to go quite to that extent,” he said.

    “In lots of cases, they don’t even apply to multiple regent universities. They know which regent university they want to go to. They know if they’re automatically admitted. And that’s it. They’re done.”

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