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Fixing the Common App

April 11, 2014

The glitches on the Common Application in the fall -- which left many applicants unable to submit their applications -- may be fixed. But why did they happen in the first place?

A report released Thursday by the Common Application summarized the findings of an independent consultant's report that tried to answer that question. The report blamed a plan for installing a new version of the application system's software that lacked enough time and testing. But beyond that, the report discusses concerns about pricing policies that may have left colleges particularly vulnerable when things stopped working, and to questions about the association's mission and board.

The Common Application has doubled in size -- with well over 500 member colleges -- in the last 10 years. Many colleges have credited the Common App with helping them attract more applicants. But glitches in new software this fall left applicants, guidance counselors and admissions officers furious. Many colleges had to move back deadlines, particularly for early decision. And statements from the Common Application that problems were being fixed didn't satisfy people when those problems lingered.

While the regular decision deadlines generally went more smoothly, many in the admissions world raised questions about the once popular service. And in February, the Common Application announced that, at the board's request, Rob Killion was stepping down as executive director.

The consulting company Censeo found that that the plan for shifting to the new software system "was not realistic in scope or timing" and that "the lack of time available for testing" was a major issue.

While the report said that "perception" of the problems was worse than reality, it said that students and counselors faced "very real challenges" because of the software issues. Further, the report said that complaints about communication and leadership of the organization "were reasonable under the circumstances."

Looking ahead, the report raised a number of issues that it suggested the Common Application needs to address. For example, the report noted that the Common App has always struggled to define whether it is primarily "a membership organization or a technology vendor," and that resolving this issue could help the organization. Further the report noted that the board consists entirely of people who work in college admissions, either at the college or high school level. The board might benefit from also having chief information officers or chief financial officers from member colleges, the report said.

A Single Point of Failure

The report briefly touches on an issue of pricing, and says that the "current pricing structure may be at odds with the mission."

The Common App's pricing structure -- based on volume of applications -- has tiers. Those colleges that use only the Common Application, and make it impossible for anyone to apply without the Common Application, pay the lowest rates. As a result, the many colleges that opted for the lower rates created what technology experts call "a single point of failure," where there is no backup to an essential technology.

Most IT experts advise against any system with a single point of failure. And when some colleges decided that they couldn't wait for the Common App to fix its system, they had to scramble to use a Common App competitor or to create their own system.

In a recent email message to members, the Common App said that it understood that many colleges disagree with the current structure. The email said that "there are viable alternatives to the current membership structure," but that the board needed time to figure out the best way forward. As a result, the board has opted to keep the incentive to remain exclusive during the coming year. At the same time, it said it would not remove exclusive pricing discounts from member colleges that plan for, but don't launch, alternatives.

And the email said that exclusivity creates "inherent benefits" for applicants.

In an interview, Carey Thompson, a Common App board member who is vice president for enrollment and communication at Rhodes College, said that he personally favored exclusivity. "I think students, members and the high school community benefit by not having multiple platforms that confuse an already confusing process," he said. (Rhodes uses only the Common App.)

Asked about concerns over single points of failure, he said that "every institution needs to make its own decisions," but that "there are certainly cost advantages for the Common App for members to focus their members and resources on the Common App."

Too Common?

The consultant report also mentioned another concern about the new software system: that it limited the ways individual colleges could customize their use of the Common App. Member colleges have long had the ability to add supplemental questions beyond those asked on the main forms. While that ability theoretically extended to the new software system, the way rules about questions were interpreted frustrated some colleges. The consultants' report said that while a majority of colleges are happy with the system, "a vocal minority of members want more flexibility to customize their member screens."

The Common App says that it is trying to be more flexible about member customization, but that it is also trying to enforce rules on repetitive questions that can discourage applicants.

Thompson said that Common App leaders respect the individuality of colleges, even as they aim for an application service that uses the word "common" in its name. "Different members have different needs, and different traditions and different ways of expressing themselves," he said. "Some members want more flexibility than perhaps previously we imagined."

 

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