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.
"These rankings do create disincentives for universities to serve students who are on the margin and who may affect their ranking," said Hawkins, who added that deferring students is "probably not the most prominent or effective way to do it."
Hawkins said his association of college admissions officials only began surveying universities on whether they used deferred admissions last year after hearing anecdotally that such policies were becoming more widespread. About a quarter of the roughly 370 colleges that responded to the NACAC's survey said they deferred some fall freshman applicants to the spring or winter term, he said.
Some at Coppin State University, which has the lowest graduation rate in the state system, want the college to add a deferred admissions program. They argue that the practice can make graduation rates look better and that since other colleges do it, Coppin's graduation rate is worse in comparison. They also believe that if students who need a full semester of remedial courses take classes at a community college, it could make them better prepared academically and more likely to graduate on time.
"Obviously, some think it's manipulating the numbers, but the bottom line is that those are the rules of the game and you have to learn how to play them," said John Hudgins, president of Coppin's chapter of the American Association of University Professors and a member of a committee that advises the administration.
Colleges that defer applicants until the spring or for a full year include the University of Southern California, Northeastern University in Boston, the State University of New York at Geneseo and Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
The spring deferred-admissions programs differ from agreements many four-year universities have with community colleges, called articulation agreements. Under that arrangement, students who complete a two-year associate's degree at the community college with a certain grade point average can transfer automatically to a university.
In the Towson and Salisbury programs, the spring admits must meet certain GPA requirements in their community college semester before they are allowed to transfer.
Towson's program is relatively small compared to its overall enrollment, as is the case at Salisbury, which began a pilot program three years ago in partnership with Wor-Wic Community College and only had about 30 students in its program this year.
But those admitted for the spring at College Park make up a significant share of the freshman class.
At College Park, nearly 28 percent of freshman applicants for the 2013-2014 academic year were offered spring admission. In that year, freshmen who enrolled in the spring made up close to a quarter of the freshman class.
The number of spring freshmen has grown quickly in recent years at UM even as the university has kept the number of students admitted in the fall between 10,000 and 12,500 since 1999. From 1994 to 2006, the university offered spring admission to between about 600 to 2,100 freshmen a year. For spring 2014, 4,755 applicants were offered spring admission, with 1,170 of them enrolling.
"Application numbers to the university have increased and the caliber of students who apply to the university have increased, which means that there's a lot of students who are capable. So rather than deny those students admission we accept them for the spring," said Shannon Gundy, UM's director of admissions. "Literally, seats become available in [spring] classes that we don't have in the fall. This gives us the opportunity to accommodate students who we wouldn't otherwise have on campus."
Freshmen admitted in the spring semester at UM have average SAT scores and high school GPAs that, while relatively high, are lower than the fall class, according to UM data.
For example, those offered spring admission had combined math and reading SAT scores that averaged about 100 points lower than those enrolled in the fall.
Garnes, the Towson University student, said she had high grades in high school and is good at writing papers. "I will openly and gladly admit that I am not a good test taker," Garnes said, adding that she got a 1450 out of 2400 on the SAT. She said she felt motivated to do well in the program to be able to transfer to Towson and that the community college classes left her well-prepared.
Coppin State President Mortimer Neufville said he wants to expand existing agreements Coppin has with community colleges under which students could transfer to the university after completing more than one semester, and that it could potentially help the university's graduation rate. Neufville said he had no plans to add a deferred spring admissions program like the ones at other colleges but would consider it if brought to him by his advisory committee.
Hudgins, of Coppin, said he supports the notion of the university adding another type of deferred admissions program, perhaps in partnership with a community college. But he said it would have to be weighed against the downside of losing tuition dollars because the students would be starting later.
Graduation rates for freshmen are counted in federal and state statistics only for full-time students who begin in the fall semester, and Hudgins said that since many Coppin students need remedial classes, it can set them back. Coppin needs to be more "strategic" about how it handles students who have challenges that delay their graduation, he said.
"Some students can spend a whole semester on developmental classes," Hudgins said. "If it's a first-time, full-time student, that's counting against your graduation rate. The community colleges are better prepared to work on remediation. When they come to the university in the spring, they're better prepared."