TWIN FALLS — It’s only November, but Andrea Jensen is 100 percent sure she wants to attend University of Idaho next year.
The 17-year-old filled out an online application Tuesday during Idaho’s College Application Week, part of a nationwide program.
Andrea, a Twin Falls High School senior, said it was helpful having time during her government class to work on college applications.
“It’s like 100 pounds off my shoulder,” she said. “There’s so much going on during senior year.”
Last week, 94 Idaho high schools — including many across the Magic Valley — participated in College Application Week.
School officials say more high school seniors this year are thinking about college earlier and have solid plans.
“They have more of an idea now — and a decision — of where they want to go,” said Christi Benson, a school counselor at Twin Falls High School.
But many are waiting for financial aid packages this spring before making a final decision, she said.
One reason students may be more prepared: It’s the second year of a direct admissions initiative. The Idaho Board of Education came up with the idea as a way to boost college-going rates.
This fall, it sent pre-admission letters to 20,000 public high school seniors letting them know which Idaho colleges and universities they qualify for. It’s based on college entrance exam scores and grade point average.
It takes the mystery out of the college application process, board spokesman Blake Youde said. In the past, students applied for colleges, “crossed their fingers and hoped they got in.”
Now, once students are pre-accepted, they just have to fill out an application form. And their application fee is applied toward their tuition.
Direct admissions is helpful because students find out which schools they’re qualified to attend, Benson said. “It’s kind of exciting to students to see that.”
Getting a pre-admission letter helps create excitement among students and they want to explore their options, said Wendell High School counselor Geianne Choate. “The fact that they got the letter, it gets them started thinking earlier.”
At Wendell High, 57 of 68 seniors applied to at least one college during College Application Week. And on average, students applied to three.
The Idaho Board of Education’s “Complete College Idaho” plan aims for 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds to have a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2020.
But the college go-on rate is dropping, from 52 percent of graduating high schoolers in 2014 to 46 percent last year.
And it’s a bit too early to tell if the direct admissions initiative is helping. The state board will hear a report in December.
Anecdotally, though, Idaho’s colleges and universities have seen a 5 percent boost this fall in the number of first-time resident freshmen, Youde said.
Across the Magic Valley last week, employees from the College of Southern Idaho helped students with college applications.
And some Idaho colleges and universities waived application fees.
Throughout the day Tuesday at Twin Falls High School, 244 seniors worked on college applications.
Some students are looking into joining the U.S. armed forces after high school, Benson said, so they looked into or finished that process.
Students who already finished college applications used the time to apply for scholarships.
Once students finished an application, school counselors took their picture in a front of a College Application Week banner.
Students also had a chance to win college swag such as bumper stickers, t-shirts and lanyards. And the school gave away an iPad mini and a pair of tickets to a Utah Jazz game.
So where are students applying? Many are interested in CSI or another in-state school, Benson said.
But some are broadening their horizons to look at out-of-state universities.
Kelsi Cox, 18, was working on applications Tuesday for Idaho State University and Boise State University. She wants to become a teacher.
She has already applied to a few out-of-state universities, too, including Southern Oregon University and James Madison University in Virginia.
Kelsi grew up in North Carolina and has been in Idaho for six years, but is considering whether to move closer to her hometown for college.
She’s still considering Idaho schools, though. “It’s pretty cool because there are great scholarship opportunities in Idaho,” she said.
Classmate Kristina Doerr, 17, was working on an application to the University of Hawaii-West Oahu. She was considering studying marine biology, but has shifted her focus toward nutrition.
Going to school in Hawaii is her top choice, and she’s also interested in San Diego. But she hasn’t completely ruled out Idaho schools.
“Definitely, if I need any to fall back on, I’ll apply to a few,” she said.
Andrea, who plans to study elementary education, said she likes University of Idaho because it’s a big school, but not too overwhelming. She’s also attracted to the university’s Greek system.
“I like the atmosphere at UI,” she said, adding the campus is gorgeous with trees and mountain views. And she likes the university’s College of Education facilities.
UI was listed in Andrea’s pre-admissions letter from the state. But even if it wasn’t, she still planned to apply.
She said the letter made her feel comfortable and she likes having other options if her first choice doesn’t work out.
At Kimberly High School, students have a better idea than past years of which schools they want to apply to, counselor Debbie Klug said.
The direct admissions initiative played a role, she said. Kimberly High also did a college search activity with high school seniors in September.
During College Application Week, some students talked about their direct admissions letter and which schools they’d been pre-accepted to, Klug said.
But it also brought up some confusion.
“I think the kids did have some questions about their letters,” Klug said.
For example, students were wondering about application fees and how they’d be applied back toward their tuition.
The main change this year: Students received two letters from the Idaho Board of Education instead of one.
“Process wise, we learned quite a bit from last year,” Youde said. “We’re hearing, anecdotally, that’s helpful.”
Last year, high school seniors didn’t receive their pre-acceptance letter until early November. This year, they got letters in September and October.
Sending out multiple letters to students and their parents was effective, Youde said.
The Idaho Board of Education heard from parents whose teenagers didn’t receive a letter because of an address error or mail delivery issue, for example.
Youde said, “that tells us already there’s a higher level of awareness about it overall.”