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College Admissions Have Never Been Harder – But We Can Fix It

We know that college has become increasingly expensive, putting it out of reach for many people. But is it also getting harder just to apply?

A series of recent articles in The Hechinger Report say “yes”: that “the financial aid process is more broken than ever,” that “immigrant students need trained advisers to navigate the problematic college admissions process,” and that “applying to college has never been more confusing.” 

This is especially true as a result of glitches in the new federal financial aid website and recent Supreme Court decisions eliminating race conscious admissions policies that colleges had been relying on for decades. At the moment, neither prospective students nor college administrators seem to know exactly how the admissions process works – especially for students who need resources or help.

Many of the proposed solutions are underwhelming. Writing in Hechinger, Jonathan Lewis, the senior director of research at uAspire, says that families need to have hard discussions about the kind of colleges their children can realistically attend. Matthew Nicola, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests more communication between admissions officers and school counselors, standardized templates for letters of recommendation, and bias training for college admissions officers. None of these are bad ideas, but they don’t really speak to the challenges that a prospective student – especially an economically disadvantaged student, or student of undocumented immigrants – will have navigating the college admissions system.

Meanwhile the needs of working adults who have to get more education to improve their careers are completely ignored. Not a word is spent on the unique barriers they face.

The moment calls for more than small fixes, useful as they may be. It requires reimagining college, and the college application process. It is possible. California, with Calbright College in the lead, is leading the way.

Fast, Focused, Free – Designed for Adult Students

Calbright is a statewide online community college specifically designed for adults who need a college-level education to change or improve their careers. Its’ students have adult responsibilities — they have jobs, they care for children or parents, they serve their communities — and very little time. To support them, Calbright has what might be the most streamlined admissions process of any accredited college, anywhere:

  • Calbright is free to all California residents. So there are no financial aid forms to fill out and no student debt
  • Calbright automatically accepts all Californians over 18 who have a high school diploma or equivalent. So there’s very little paperwork to fill out, and no confusion. This is true regardless of immigration status. Calbright says “yes” to every qualified applicant.
  • Calbright lets students start when they’re ready. Calbright is individually paced and doesn’t use a semester system: Students can start their program whenever they’re ready, any time of year, and go as quickly or as slowly through their studies as they need. This education fits students’ lives, rather than requiring them to fit their lives around the traditional education system.


This approach may be radical, even revolutionary, but it works. Calbright accepted its first “beta” cohort of students in late 2019, and has been growing ever since. Over five years, it has grown to over 4,500 students, become fully accredited, and is now a leader in online Competency-Based Education

It is possible to have a better, simpler, approach to college admissions, one that invites students in the doors rather than keeping them waiting, and hoping, outside. We have reimagined college, and it works.

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