As the fall semester began at Towson University last year, Erin Garnes settled into one of the dormitories and signed up for clubs and other school activities.
But one thing separated her from Towson students: All of her classes were taught by community college professors. Under a program at Towson, if she did well, she would be admitted to the university in the spring.
Her experience mirrors a practice that's been growing at colleges in Maryland and across the country in recent years — offering some students admission for the spring semester and providing a bridge during the fall to help them adjust to the rigors of college. University admissions officials say the practice allows them to get more people in the door when class and dorm space open up from students dropping out, transferring or studying abroad in the spring.
At the University of Maryland, College Park, spring admissions have grown rapidly since 2007, and in the last academic year, nearly a quarter of the freshman class started in the spring. At UM, spring admits can opt into a fall program in which they live off-campus and take a full semester of classes at off-peak hours.
At Towson and Salisbury universities, students conditionally admitted for the spring can live in university dorms and take classes taught by community college professors on campus during the fall semester. They pay tuition to the community college — Garnes was with the Community College of Baltimore County — and are technically considered community college students.
For Garnes and other students who fall just short of a university's ideal admissions standards, it's a chance to demonstrate their worth.
"This is basically like getting a second chance at the college experience," said Garnes, now a rising sophomore at Towson double-majoring in communications and sports management.
At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, assistant vice provost of admissions and orientation Dale Bittinger said some students who are denied fall admission are encouraged to do a semester of classes at a community or four-year college, though there is no formal transition program like at Towson or Salisbury. If they do well, they are approved to enroll at UMBC without having to resubmit an application.
Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said deferred admissions have grown "increasingly ubiquitous as an enrollment management practice" at colleges across the country. Nassirian said the practice helps colleges avoid having packed classes in the fall and too many spaces open in the spring.
As a best practice, Nassirian said, colleges should require students to attend a community college or other university and meet certain criteria before they begin in the spring, as Towson, UMBC and Salisbury's programs do.
"If the student is unqualified today, how are they going to be qualified tomorrow unless you have a framework that identifies certain deficits and certain remedies that make sense," he said. "Just saying, 'Wait' — that's not a sufficient framework."
Proponents of deferred admissions say it can help ease students' transfer to a four-year university, since in many cases, they can live in the dorms at the four-year school while taking classes taught by community college professors on the university's campus. In many cases, they can join sports teams or clubs.
"It is an opportunity for the student to go to their first-choice school," Ann Gamble, coordinator of Freshman Transition, the program run jointly by Towson and CCBC. The pilot began in 2008, and about 170 students will participate this fall, she said.
"They get to live on campus, they're taking pretty much the exact same classes," Gamble said. "It lessens that transfer shock because they're already physically there and they know their way around campus. They get a lot of support, no one slips through the cracks and they don't feel like a number."
Garnes said she came to enjoy her experience in Freshman Transition so much that she now works part time for the university's admissions office, encouraging other potential students to give it a shot.
"They don't make you think like you're an outsider," said Garnes, 19, of Waldorf. "You get a Towson ID, you get to live on campus, you take classes on campus. I still felt like a Towson student, I just knew myself I was taking CCBC classes."
She added: "I'm glad I went with it because otherwise I would have ended up somewhere else, and I really love Towson."
The practice can also help a university's rankings.
When a university says its incoming freshman class has a certain average SAT score and high school grade point average, those figures do not include the spring admits, who generally have lower average scores and grades. Graduation and retention rates for first-time students, a key measure of a college's effectiveness, are also based only on the academically stronger students who are enrolled in the fall.
David Hawkins, the director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said it was "certainly not beyond the scope of imagination" that a college would use deferred admissions to better its standing in popular rankings guides like that published by U.S. News and World Report.