Flipping the Admission Process

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim

When 16-year-old Lydia’s high school counselor suggested she create a profile on Concourse—a new web-based platform where colleges can go to find students—she figured she didn’t have anything to lose.

“It was just filling out a couple of questions and I thought, ‘Why not?’” Lydia says. “It was very easy to sign up.”

After answering some questions about her interests, activities, goals, and her planned major, the process was done. Since Concourse keeps applicants anonymous during the initial stages of the process, her counselor uploaded a redacted PDF of her transcript. It was October 2021.

Within about a month, Lydia—then a senior at a charter school in Chicago—was getting offers from colleges throughout Illinois.

“I received about ten different offers with Concourse, and I only had to accept or decline those offers,” Lydia explains. “I wasn’t sure about the offers because there were some colleges I (hadn’t) heard about, so I had to do some research and make sure they were friendly.”

By “friendly,” Lydia said she meant a college that accepts undocumented students, such as herself, and that offers them more financial aid and provides information about other resources they can use. “Lydia” is a pseudonym to protect her identity as an undocumented student.

One college stood out from the rest—it happened to be the one that sent the first acceptance letter she got through Concourse.

“The first acceptance letter I received was from Knox College,” Lydia says. “I saw they offered me a $49,000 scholarship and that certainly is a lot.”

A year at Knox costs $63,585, which includes tuition, fees, as well as room and board.

“In my acceptance letter I got a scholarship of $49,000, but when I went for a college visit, I received my actual award letter with a scholarship of $59,000,” Lydia explains.

“I made sure they had the major I was looking for and even though it’s three hours away from home it has many benefits for me as an undocumented student,” says Lydia, who plans to major in biochemistry with a minor in German studies. Her ultimate career goal is to become a dental surgeon.

One of the most striking things about Lydia’s experience, says Joe Morrison, CEO of Concourse Global Enrollment, a Brooklyn, New York-based firm that operates Concourse, is how quickly Lydia was able to receive and accept an offer compared to the traditional college application process.

“In terms of timeline, the student received her admission offer from Knox College via Concourse on Nov. 19 and completed the ‘interested’ form on Nov. 21,” Morrison says. “Note how much quicker and simpler this is compared to the traditional application process, where even Early Admission/Early Decision applicants don't get decisions until mid-late December.”

Lydia’s experience is what college admission could look like in the coming years as more and more colleges turn to Concourse to help form their classes of incoming students, and as more counselors use the platform as part of helping students get into college.

Concourse started out serving international students in 2020, but it began serving US students in the Chicago region in fall of 2021. Morrison says Concourse plans to expand to six additional regions this fall—Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Greater New York City, and Philadelphia—and to double the number of colleges it works with from 100 to 200.

Admission experts say Concourse is a game-changer that could simplify the college admission process and make the system more equitable for students from families of lesser economic means. But those same experts also warn that Concourse could create additional work for students and—depending on which colleges participate and how colleges select students—it could also limit student options and leave existing inequalities intact.

“The Concourse approach creates a reordering of the traditional sequence of college admissions and adds a little more transparency about the reality that colleges are seeking students to enroll in their institutions,” says OiYan Poon, associate professor affiliate in the School of Education at Colorado State University.

“Most institutions struggle each year to ‘make their class,’” Poon says. “I think the Concourse approach somewhat—but not entirely—reduces some of the anxiety for both college hopefuls and institutions in the enrollment system.”

Poon notes that research has shown how college-eligible first-generation students of color are sometimes discouraged by counselors and teachers from applying to highly resourced four-year institutions.

“One way the Concourse approach might disrupt this chilling effect is by taking away the requirement placed on students to figure out where to apply, which might subsequently open up wider arrays of college opportunities for these students,” Poon says.

Taylor Odle, assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says it is noteworthy that Concourse “comes from outside the higher education space.”

“This isn't a consortium of colleges or universities—it's a private company that's identified this need and said that students and families can't wait for institutions to fix the broken admissions system,” Odle says.

Jennifer A. Delaney, associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says the Concourse model changes traditional college admission in two important ways—being proactive and offering a guarantee of admission.

“The system is proactive in pushing information to students instead of relying on students to search for colleges,” Delaney says. “This reduces the need for social and cultural capital to navigate the college search process and likely makes the process more equitable for students of different backgrounds within the Concourse system.”

Delaney says the offers of guaranteed admission are also of value to students.

“It is important informationally in that students no longer need to guess which institutions will admit them but instead already know where they have been admitted.” Delaney says. “There is also value in the guarantee since it gives students ‘a bird in the hand’ and a clearly defined pathway through which they can enter a postsecondary institution.”

Concourse is not the only organization that takes this approach. As reported in July in Inside Higher Ed, an organization called SAGE Scholars will begin this year to offer some of its member schools a chance to view the profiles of students and admit them directly. But SAGE started out in 1995 as an organization that helps make higher education more affordable through “tuition rewards.” The rewards are paid for by employers who offer Sage as a benefit for their employees to help their children apply to colleges. The “rewards” are then converted into tuition discounts of up to 25%, according to SAGE’s website.

“The main differences between Concourse and Sage are the socioeconomic status of the students, and that the colleges participating in Sage are all private,” writes Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, in a July 11 article.

Odle says he worries that Concourse portfolios may not contain enough information to enable colleges to increase the diversity of the students they admit.

“If the portfolios that colleges use to admit students mainly feature GPA and standardized test scores, we already know these pieces of information fall sharply along racial and socioeconomic lines and have led to much of the inequality we see today,” Odle says. “Similarly, features of students' extracurricular activities reflect longstanding social and economic inequality given that some students can literally afford to participate while others cannot. Portfolios should work to carefully reflect students' high school contexts that can be masked by these standardized pieces of information.”

Morrison, of Concourse, says a decision was made to keep student profiles “lean” because most colleges do not have the resources to assess student portfolios at scale.

“GPA and standardized test scores can be a useful tool to narrow a pool of prospective students to the point where an admissions officer can afford to take the time to do a deeper dive on each student,” Morrison says. Students can upload additional materials if they have them, he says, and counselors are encouraged to write notes about each student to contextualize their profile for admissions officers.

“It ensures a low barrier to entry for students by not asking for too much information up front, while still enabling admissions officers to gather the information needed to develop a richer picture of each student,” Morrison says. “Admissions officers can even play a consultative role as they request additional information, helping counselors and students understand exactly what they need. This kind of guidance also bridges information gaps and helps create more equity in the admission process.”

Odle notes that some states—such as Idaho, South Dakota and Hawaii—have begun to proactively admit high school students to colleges based on information the state already has, such as GPA and test scores.

In states that employ this practice, students don't even need to create a portfolio like they do with Concourse, Odle says.

“Concourse needs to have student portfolios with these data because they do not already have access to student ‘success’ metrics—but states already have that information,” Odle says. “The real ‘game-changer’ would be if more states started actually using that data in a proactive way to equalize the college admissions process.

“I am happy that Concourse is doing this because it represents the type of disruption that we need in this space—but we should always be pushing further.”

Keith Herbert, director of postsecondary outcomes at Civitas Education Partners (IL)—and Lydia’s counselor at her charter high school—says he decided to give Concourse a try after hearing about the platform from a colleague who works at EAB’s College Greenlight/Cappex, a collective of advisers that has a partnership with Concourse. Greenlight’s website says its mission is specifically to increase college access and completion for underrepresented and historically underserved students.

“Part of my job is finding programs that would enhance the postsecondary process for our students and although I didn’t really have much to go on, I was intrigued at the program based on the initial list of schools involved,” Herbert says of Concourse. “These were all schools I put in kids’ lists over the past decade and some would apply, but there wasn’t a real draw.

“This seemed like a way to change the conversation between my (counseling) staff and the kids,” Herbert says. “If there is an easy way to show kids they would be accepted and the substantial scholarship offers were there, we’d have those conversations with kids early.”

Some experts worry that Concourse may limit the number of schools from which students are eligible to choose. Or that the schools may not be of high quality and don’t do a good job of helping low-income students graduate.

Morrison, the CEO at Concourse, says the market will determine if that’s true. “College counselors decide whether we are delivering sufficient admission offers to their students and whether the colleges are good and reputable,” Morrison says. “Counselors that have a good experience getting offers for their students via Concourse will come back and bring more of their students to the platform. Otherwise, the counselors will stop inviting their students. The system governs itself over time.”

 Colleges currently can pay a “match fee” of $100 to $250 per student or buy a subscription to Concourse. To prevent third parties from using Concourse to get access to students or student information, a college cannot use Concourse without first making an arrangement to do so.

Herbert, Lydia’s counselor, says Concourse is in fact connecting students with high-quality schools, even if they aren’t well known.

“For us, it changed the conversation with kids for lesser-known schools that are really high quality,” Herbert says. “If as a counselor I know Student ‘A’ not only is accepted, but I also know their scholarship offer, and I can do the math with (federal and state student financial aid)—I can actually tell kids how affordable their options are months before most students are doing that,” Herbert explains. “That gives me and my team plenty of time to work more individually with students.

“In previous years, we were waiting until late February or March and then we have 220 seniors, and everybody is scrambling,” Herbert adds. Civitas manages three charter schools in Chicago.

Herbert says students found the Concourse interface easy to use.

“The other thing it did was gave us a tool to say: ‘Hey, go on Concourse, click on the messaging tab, and ask that question,’” Herbert says. Concourse’s messaging tab, he explained, allows students to ask a college’s admission representative questions directly in a text format.

 “The communication tab was similar to texting, and kids felt better about that compared to email,” Herbert said.

Another standout feature is how some colleges on Concourse match certain majors to the information that students provided.

Ordinarily, Herbert says, students might get a list of majors and pass many of them over. “But here they were told: ‘We offer this—check it out,’” Herbert says. “In an ever-expanding world of specific majors being added, this really changes the game for a few kids.”

Morrison, the Concourse CEO, says counselors can still work with students to submit conventional applications afterward if they aren’t happy with the offers they get through Concourse.

Odle, the University of Wisconsin professor, says if a student uses Concourse and still needs to apply to other colleges via their traditional process, “then Concourse itself represents another hurdle students and families have to jump over.”

“Unless Concourse completely replaces a student's application process, it literally adds (to) the complexity it seeks to reduce,” Odle says. “This does the same for counselors and college advisers. Supporting students' completion of a Concourse portfolio may add work to an already-strained advising system.”

Herbert says he can attest to that.

Asked if he would recommend Concourse to his fellow counselors, he said he would do so with a grain of salt.

“Like anything, it’s not a fix and with my kids, it didn’t take work off our plate. It actually added to it as it was another thing we as the postsecondary staff had to remind students (about), chase them down, have them click the right buttons, et cetera,” Herbert says. “But I’d still recommend it if a team wanted to find out if this changed the conversation in a way that was meaningful.

“That said, like literally any tech, you have to embrace the messy iteration of implementation,” Herbert says. “I learned a lot from my first year of using it and made mistakes I won’t next year.”

Asked what kinds of mistakes he made, Herbert said he neglected to have all students upload their personal statements.

“It would have taken another five minutes in class to walk them through that,” Herbert says. “Also SAT scores—there was one partner college that only accepted kids with scores submitted. That might have been their processing error or I missed something, but few kids got in.”

Hebert also says he wishes he had all of the students download the phone-based app for Concourse—at least at the end of the process—in order to take advantage of the push notifications.

“Most kids do not check email with fidelity and assume mostly everything is spam,” Herbert says. “Many of the Concourse messages notifying them to check the app got lost in the rinse cycle and remained unread. But also, so did a lot of their acceptance emails and verification requests.”

Herbert says he sees a need for “one central hub for communication” given the multiple application platforms that students use these days.

“Between Slate, the Common App, Coalition, plus the thousands of college portals, it’s too much,” Herbert says.

He says there will always be a need for a human touch.

“It’s really just another tool to manage and needs integration into a program to be a meaningful developmental experience for kids,” Herbert says. “At least for my kids, I could never just give this to them and their parents and expect it to be used with fidelity and to the highest potential. My students are mostly first-gen kids and still need personal support.”

Lydia—who had also applied to colleges using the Common App—says she would recommend students use both. But she is keenly aware of the difference between the two platforms.

“In the Common App you apply for the colleges you want, you look for the college,” Lydia says. “And in Concourse the college looks for you.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a journalist living in Washington, DC.


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