What the Common App Does

Study finds that applications go up, yield goes down … and (maybe) SAT scores go up a bit for colleges in the program.

August 26, 2019

The Common Application -- love it or hate it -- is a force in American higher education.

It has been criticized for (allegedly) encouraging colleges to sacrifice an original essay question for one that the Common App would like, and for encouraging more and more students to apply to colleges that they don't have any intention of going to.

But the Common App also been praised for easing the process for hundreds of thousands of students, and for making it simpler for colleges to attract applicants.

Amid the debate, relatively few studies have been done about what the Common App does. Does it get more applications? Does it cut yield? Does it get more applicants with high SAT scores?

The National Bureau of Economic Research has just published a paper that considers these and other questions by Brian G. Knight of Brown University and Nathan M. Schiff of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. The scholars are generally positive about the Common App -- except that they say it may widen the gap between more and less selective colleges.

They looked at the Common App from 1990 to 2015. (The Common App started in 1975 with just 15 colleges and has grown significantly since 2015.) At the end of the period studied by the scholars, the Common App had 700 members and received about four million applications from one million students. During the period studied, the Common App dropped its opposition to having public colleges, but private members remain dominant in the group. And the Common App gained considerable strength in geographic diversity, with significant wins in California and Florida. (Since then, the Common App has gained a competitor, the Coalition for College.)

The findings:

  • Joining the Common App results in a 12 percent increase in applications, on average, compared to the years before a college joins. "Moreover, the effect grows over time, rising to roughly 25 percent after one decade in the Common App," the report says.
  • There is also a 12 percent increase in admits.
  • There is a 9 percent decline in yield (the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll).
  • Taken over all, there is a small increase in enrollment.
  • More international and out-of-state students apply after joining the Common App.

The scholars found some evidence for a slight increase in SAT scores after colleges join the Common App. But they caution that these are only statistically significant (and small) in part. If the SAT increase is true, the scholars write, it would suggest that the Common App is encouraging the stratification of American higher education.

Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App, said it was important to remember that the organization now includes 900 members. About 78 percent (610) of the members had an admission rate greater than 50 percent. The members include 51 minority-serving institutions and 12 historically black colleges. The Common App isn't judging its success by the percentage of students that colleges reject, Rickard said.

She also pointed to a study by the Pew Research Center on college admission rates in April.

"The expansion of the Common Application, which makes it easier for students to apply to multiple schools, doesn’t appear to be behind the increase in application volume," Pew said. "The Common App, as it’s called, is accepted by nearly 800 colleges and universities in the United States and several dozen overseas. Of the 1,364 institutions in our sample, 729 accept the Common App along with (or in some cases instead of) their own application forms; the other 635 use their own forms. Although one might suspect that the ease of applying to multiple schools via the Common App would result in stronger growth in application volume among those schools, there was almost no difference in 2002-2017 growth rates between the schools that used the Common App and those that didn’t."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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