With colleges feeling more and more pressure to increase their applicant pools in recent years, the Common Application  has become more and more popular. The application lets students fill out a single form and send it off to multiple institutions that participate. While many of the 316 colleges  that are members also have supplemental forms, institutions report that the convenience of the Common Application leads to almost overnight increases in applications. The lure to join has been so strong that even the University of Chicago  -- which has called its application the Uncommon Application -- couldn't resist.
On Wednesday, for the first time since the Common Application took off, a competitor emerged with the unveiling of the Universal College Application.  This alternative was created by a company that created and until recently managed the online infrastructure of the Common Application.
The Universal College Application is kicking off with 13 colleges signed up, including some big names. The initial members (12 of which are also using the Common Application) are: Clark, Drew, Drexel, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Seattle Universities; Guilford and Villa Julie Colleges; Rensselaer and Worcester Polytechnic Institutes, the University of Maine at Farmington, and Washington University in St. Louis.
That mix of colleges is lopsided private. So is the Common Application (only 15 publics). But the Universal College Application is being set up in a way that will allow many more publics to join and anticipates using a broader public-private mix to attract a more diverse pool of applicants. The Common Application meanwhile plans to keep its rules about who can be admitted to the group -- and says that those rules encourage the right set of values in admissions. The Common Application is also cutting its prices to members and offering a special discount to those that use the Common Application exclusively.
The applications themselves are fairly similar -- basic information about the applicant, grades, test scores, extracurriculars, teacher recommendations, essays and so forth. Both services also allow colleges to have supplementary questions. The key difference is which colleges can participate.
The Common Application requires that colleges -- which are "admitted" each year as members -- evaluate applicants on a mix of objective and subjective factors. That means colleges must require at least one essay and one teacher evaluation. Private liberal arts college made up the original base of the Common Application and most of them have such requirements, but many public institutions do not. The Universal College Application requires only that member colleges be accredited and that they abide by the Statement of Principles of Good Practice  of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which focuses on ethical principles, but does not tell colleges what they must require of applicants.
Joshua J. Reiter, founder of the Universal College Application, said that when his company lost the contract to manage the Common Application's online system, he started meeting with groups of admissions leaders to ask them what they wanted in an application system. "The first thing we heard, from the largest research universities to smallest liberal arts colleges, they said, 'We want it to be more inclusive. We want a broader mix of applicants.' The other thing they said was 'you shouldn't be making policy.' "
From that idea came the belief that the new application needed to be attractive to more public colleges -- and that fewer requirements would do that. In theory, those public colleges will attract to the Universal College Application students who might not have otherwise used the service, and some of them may apply to other colleges.
Colleges know the technology he'll be using, Reiter said, because they have used it in the Common Application and helped him improve it. "We're just starting and the Common Application is the brand name, but our technology is what they have been using," he said. (Reiter's company, not the Common Application, owned the license on it.)
Reiter stressed the "access mission" of his service, and that's a message that has resonated with the first group of admissions deans.
Duke's Christoph Guttentag said that his institution would be "neutral" on which application is used, and that he didn't expect a major increase in applications through Universal in its first year. "We think that in the long run there will be a significant number of students who will want to look beyond the Common Application colleges and who will find the Universal College Application appealing," he said. "The Universal Application has the potential to broaden the horizons of students as they look for colleges. We're approaching this at least as much with the idea of supporting access to college as we are with the idea that it will generate any significant number of applications for us."
Eileen M. Reading, assistant director of admission at the University of Maine at Farmington, said that her institution is a member of the Common Application, but receives only a minority of applications that way. Applicants to Farmington tend to also be considering public colleges in Maine and New Hampshire that aren't in the Common Application, so a joint process that attracted more public institution would help. "It's not that we've been unhappy with the Common Application, but it's just that we've been impressed and intrigued by what the goals of the Universal College Application are," she said.
In particular, Reading cited discussions with Reiter about ways to help students who may not have an e-mail address or access to a computer at home. "We know that the bulk of Harvard's applicants have access, but not everyone has access," she said.
Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, said that he did not want his group's decision to work with a new outfit to reflect in any negative way on Reiter's company, and he said he would rather not talk about the new competition, but was happy to talk about the Common Application's approach. He said that with its new technology vendor, the Common Application will be unveiling a new look and new search functionality this weekend.
As for the question of reach, Killion said that he would welcome more public members, but he said that there were important reasons for the Common Application to maintain its requirements. "Our mission is to promote holistic admissions," he said. "It's more humane." Essays and recommendations "provide context" that can't be found in grades and test scores, he said.
There are probably another 50-60 colleges that meet the Common Application's standards that have not yet joined, he said and there are always a few colleges changing admissions requirements in ways that would make them eligible. And the Common Application wants such colleges to join. But Killion predicted that membership would top out around 400 -- and that's fine with him.
"If we dropped the holistic admissions requirement, we could grow by hundreds and hundreds of members, but we are concerned about promoting a humane process," he said.
Working with the new technology vendor, Killion said that the Common Application is able to drop prices this year. The base rate paid by colleges will be $5.50 per application, but discounts as low as $4 will be available to colleges that have their entire application online and offered exclusively through the Common Application.
Killion said that the motivation for the exclusive discount -- being offered for the first time this year, and already sold to 100 member colleges -- was related to serving students. Many counselors tell him that they love the Common Application, but that if students are applying to colleges that don't use it, the students end up "having to bookmark 20 pages" and some of the convenience is lost. In addition, he said that many applicants fear inaccurately that they have a better chance using a college's own application than the College Application, and getting colleges to do all their reviews through the service will eliminate such fears.
Reiter declined to reveal his pricing, but said that it was "competitive" with the Common Application.
Some admissions experts, including fans of Reiter, aren't sure about his new model. Robert Massa is vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College, a Common Application institution. Earlier in his career, Massa was dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins, where he was Reiter's first client in putting an application online. Massa encouraged Reiter to seek the Common Application contract that built his business.
"I think Josh is an incredibly talented professional and he's serviced the Common Application exceptionally well," Massa said.
But he said he was bothered by the idea that colleges think they can diversify their applicant pools by just getting more people to use any application service. And he said he wondered whether having many more students apply to many more colleges was really a good thing.
"I think we have to be real careful to strike a balance between ease of application and seriousness of application," he said. "One of the down sides of the Common Application is that it encourages students to apply to more colleges than they really need to."