According to Dick Moll, co-founder of the Common Application, “The unavoidable standardization of the Common Application, not to mention the online debacle for students trying to use it this year, causes serious questions regarding its service to both the candidate and the college … I sense that the Common App’s time is up.”
The Common App organization obviously doesn’t agree. One executive was recently quoted as saying, “We are feeling good about how things are going … [But] we would never go so far as to say that everything is fixed for every person in all circumstances because we’re dealing with a very complex piece of technology.”
Unfortunately, this focus on technology problems and their fixes avoids discussion of the real problem at Common App.
And the real problem is this: The Common Application organization has forgotten its core ideal of “holistic admissions.”
This good idea encourages consideration of applicants as real people, not just bundles of statistics and scores. While the Common App requires its “member” schools to review an essay, it has made those essay choices more restrictive and uniform; colleges are charging students $10 just to attach their artwork; and it’s not embracing video technology, a step that could provide a true sense of individual expression.
Instead of pursuing its core ideal, the Common Application has transformed itself into a Web processor. Yet doing this today is just as off-mission as if the organization had insisted on running printing presses during the paper era. Instead of advancing “holistic” admissions, Common App has been absorbed in de-bugging its site, bulking up its infrastructure, solving a steady stream of back-office reliability and security issues, and conducting PR.
So why do colleges put up with this?
Many colleges that join the Common Application experience an immediate bump of 20-30 percent in application volume and fee revenue. And because “selectivity” is computed by U.S. News & World Report as a simple measure around the ratio of entering class size to volume of applications, each new member of the Common App can, thus, say it is more "prestigious."
This, of course, is a total fiction. Everybody in higher education knows that Common Application adoption doesn't suddenly make each new member institution 20-30 percent more prestigious. The irony is that as institutions sign on to the Common Application, sanctimoniously affirming a "holistic" approach to evaluating applicants, they are chasing more favorable assessment according to U.S. News' specious, non-holistic and quantitative measure of "prestige."
Yet, because it holds the keys to greater rankings “prestige,” the Common App can force its member colleges to live with whatever malfunctions and backwardness come with its technology platform. There’s also a suppression of innovation, given that admissions officers cannot easily suggest or add new features or functions that might enrich the application process. In addition, the Common Application has unwittingly created a means by which other senior administrators can wrest control from the admissions office. We've seen university boards and presidents forcing the Common App on admissions officers because of their unquenchable desire for greater “prestige.”
This is especially ironic given that the Common Application "movement" was created by admissions officers to advance their ideals and influence.
So is there a solution here? Yes.
It starts with the Common Application renewing its commitment to the "holistic" evaluation of applicants and phasing out its misguided efforts to become an application-processing vendor.
To do this, the Common App could announce and promote a new Web form, the New Common Application, which would collect common field information only.
The New Common Application would be available for students to complete at the Common Application site. The New Common Application would contain most, if not all, of the fields of the current Common Application. But, unlike the current version, the New Common Application would neither collect payments nor be submitted by the student. Rather, it would serve as an entry point for a student's common information, which the student could then subsequently download into full, customized applications served separately – either by universities directly, or by vendors on their behalf.
Along with this new form, the Common Application organization would offer an API – Application Programming Interface – for licensing by institutions or their vendors. Any entity, whether it was a college hosting its own Web application or a vendor hosting Web applications on behalf of client institutions, could license this API from the Common Application organization. The licensing entity would then configure its Web application so that students could automatically populate it with their New Common Application information. The licensing entity would pay the Common Application a fee for each student who downloaded his or her data in this fashion.
Over time, this approach would eradicate the need for redundant typing of application information by students. And any college or vendor that licensed the API would spread this benefit throughout the ecosystem. Obviously, every admissions-servicing vendor would need to quickly acquire an API license for the New Common Application. By "hooking" its system into the New Common Application, the vendor would thereby add an important and necessary new feature – saving typing for student users.
One of the most significant benefits of this idea would be the elimination of U.S. News' pernicious influence on the selectivity calculation in the admissions application processing business. Since every college would eventually be hooked into the New Common Application, no subgroup of institutions would hold an advantage in terms of receiving more applications by virtue of having reduced the typing burden.
Individual colleges could also go back to expressing themselves individually through their application form, welcoming more interesting and imaginative expression from students, and pressuring vendors to compete and innovate with new features and processing capability.
For its part, the Common Application organization would likely become richer, despite having dropped out of the for-profit, top-line revenue chase. With growing revenues from API fees, and no distraction from the challenges of processing applications, Common App could contribute new ideas, award scholarships, grant stipends to admissions officers who innovate for “holistic” admissions, and generally behave in a manner more befitting its nonprofit status.
It’s not too late for the Common Application organization to choose a different and better path, one that would advance, not distract from, its core ideal of “holistic” admissions.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Inside Higher Ed was unaware at the time that this piece was published that CollegeNet, the company led by the author of this article, was twice involved in patent litigation -- since settled -- involving the Common Application.
The number of undergraduate veterans at the nation’s self-proclaimed most highly selective colleges? Would you believe significantly fewer than were reported in the 2011 Veterans Day survey here?
Total this year: 168*. The * is because, again, too many of these colleges, the 31 invitation-only members of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), don’t know. The number may bounce again. Tomorrow is Veterans Day; time for the column to run.
The drop from 232 in 2011 to 174* in 2012 to 168* this year?
“Disgraceful and absurd” is what I called the 232 total on Veterans Day 2011. As a measure of available students, veterans and dependents of veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, in the most recent reports, rose from 555,329 students in 2011 to 646,302 in 2012. 232? 174*? 168*? With the nation at war and 118,784 total undergraduate seats at the 31 COFHE colleges?
Lost for synonyms, I asked Andrew Bacevich, retired U.S. Army Colonel and author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (2013), to describe the pitiful count of veterans at selective colleges. Bacevich is an eloquent critic of all of us, we, the people, for letting 1 percent of the population bear the nation’s military burden -- fighting, deaths, and wounds.
“Here is an issue where the nation's most prestigious institutions should demonstrate some leadership,” said Bacevich. “With a very few admirable exceptions, they have failed to do so. That failure is nothing less than shameful." (Listen to Bacevich on The Colbert Report and on Bill Moyers Journal.)
Back to the drops. Some colleges had been reporting as veterans the combined totals of both veterans and veteran dependents/family members using the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Cornell in 2011 reported 48, with just one confirmed veteran this year. Duke reported 22 then and one this year. Rice last year reported 27 veterans and amended that to one veteran last year and one this year. Northwestern reports 45 undergraduates who are either veterans or dependents, with the administration relying on a student group to sort out any details.
Lows for 2013: Yale 2. Princeton 1. Williams 0. Swarthmore 0. No clarification yet on whether the 19 Harvard (which did not reply to last year’s survey) reported this year includes dependents. Am I too skeptical? The 27 that Stanford had reported turned out Friday evening to include dependents. No clarification yet.
Highs: University of Pennsylvania 35. Georgetown 25, with 81 total traditional and nontraditional undergraduates including veterans and active-duty military enrolled as undergraduates. Johns Hopkins University 23. Washington University in St. Louis 20. University of Rochester 16. Dartmouth 14, one down from last year.
Again, too many evasions and excuses and circumlocutions for one column. Yale President Peter Salovey didn’t think that the question of why Yale has just two veterans was worth much time. Or Columbia, again proclaiming unquestionable success with “about 300” veterans in its General Studies program. (This is separate from its main undergraduate college, Columbia College.) Or Columbia, again, declining to reply to the questions: “Why can’t veterans get a degree from Columbia College, too?” and “What is the endowment of Columbia College versus the endowment of the College of General Studies?”
Or what to make of just Wesleyan, of all the COFHE colleges, joining the Posse Foundation Veterans Program?. Two years ago Catharine Hill, president of Vassar (not a COFHE college), and Debbie Bial, founder of the Posse Foundation, created the Posse veterans program and addressed all the stated reasons many COFHE schools had given for their reluctance to enroll veterans. Now what’s the problem?
Veterans Can’t Do the Work?
Why so few veterans at selective colleges? “Veterans can’t do the work,” an Ivy League president told me a few years ago. Not at a press event. Not an interview. I won’t out the individual.
“Generally devaluing the demonstrated abilities of the men and women who commit to national service is as ugly as the coarsest racism, sexism, etc., that presumably this same leader wouldn't be caught dead expressing. For shame,” said Jon Burdick, University of Rochester’s dean of admissions and financial aid, when told of the president’s quote. “Anybody who wants to say that should be required to provide proof -- including proof that guiding enrolling veterans to success on their campus would be a greater burden than the significant efforts they voluntarily make in guiding their underrepresented minority students, varsity athletes, and legacy children of major donors.”
“I don’t see any evidence of that,” said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, which has endowed scholarships for veterans. “The average veteran entering college is in his/her late 20s or early 30s; many have been through a very intense experience serving overseas, and all have incredible training from the military. The workload at a highly selective college or university, while different, may seem easy to them! And unlike the typical 18-year-old first-year college student who comes straight from high school, veterans have had a number of extra years to consider their future, and decided that they really want to go to college now.”
The Usual Excuses
Swarthmore College had zero veterans enrolled again this year. The reply from Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp this year joined the chorus of the usual excuses. Why zero?, I wrote to Chopp.
The Swarthmore situation troubles me on two counts, I explained. I don't see how institutions that benefit from so many federal programs and policies, from Pell Grants to research funding with generous overhead to tax-deducted donations and a tax-free endowment, can neglect the young men and women we have all sent to war. Then, I am Quaker. Work with returning veterans is part of what I do as a Quaker. From Swarthmore Facts & Figures: “Founded in 1864 as a coeducational college by members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).”
“Williams, where I went, has zero veterans, has no spiritual or moral traditions,” I wrote to Chopp. “Trustees there refuse to discuss or wonder why I am asking. I can't give that pass to Swarthmore. I don't need to list to you, I know, why Swarthmore would seek a higher standard than Williams. The usual obfuscation is that a college would be happy to take veterans but none are applying. We both know that a college would need to recruit this population. And we both know, I think, that selective colleges, especially those as wealthy as Swarthmore, have exactly as many of certain types of students -- soccer players, chemists, oboists -- as they choose to have.”
Replies and My Rebuttals
From Chopp: “We are geared in our work toward undergraduates in the age range of 18-22 and that fact sometimes makes choosing us less likely for older veterans. In recent years we have been focused on the children of veterans and we have at present seven children of veterans enrolled, which is a part of the support that veterans and their families seek and need. The community colleges and the large state and research universities are better able to enroll large numbers at once.”
Reply: Preposterous. For more than a decade, the U.S. has been a nation at war. Focusing on 18- to 22-year-olds is a decision by Swarthmore, not the hand of fate. Until the wars are over and the veterans healed, Swarthmore, a Quaker college, could decide to welcome and accommodate 100, even 200 veterans. Would Swarthmore accept a tax on its endowment to fund support for veterans at public community colleges and universities? An institution supported by federal aid and tax policies can relegate some 18- to 22-year-olds to war with no responsibility to support those students on their return?
From Chopp: We are only able to enroll smaller numbers given our class size and the commitment to a broad range of access to the liberal arts experience that we exercise.
Reply: Preposterous. In the eyes of Swarthmore, then, students of talent who have chosen not to serve their country are equal in diversity to those who have?
From Chopp: In our history the largest numbers of veterans we accommodated came after the Second World War, as many who were our students before enlisting in that war returned. Those numbers are less likely in this modern era.
“Less likely”? With 646,302 veterans and dependents using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Swarthmore will make room for seven dependents and no veterans?
I did find some good news, in addition to Wesleyan joining the Posse program.
Wesleyan is the second college to join the Posse Foundation Veterans program. Vassar, with Posse, enrolled 11 veterans this fall and will enroll as many each year in the future. Wesleyan, a COFHE school, signed on. “We found that it was a real challenge to ‘go it alone’ as a single institution,” said Wesleyan president, Michael Roth. “We were impressed by Posse’s veterans program and felt that joining forces with them was the best way to enroll more veterans every year.”
Stanford’s summer school this year will include a program for up to 20 veterans to build their academic skills. That’s the result of several years of advocacy by William Treseder, a Marine combat veteran, Stanford graduate via community college. Treseder says he came upon the summer school idea in an Inside Higher Ed column.
Reported Undergraduate Veterans in Regular Degree Program, 2013 Note: Colleges with blank cells either could not resolve whether numbers included dependents or not, or did not respond at all.
When people want to know how “good” a university is, they often turn to published media ratings, such as the rankings of U.S. News & World Report. The assumption is that the better the ratings, the better the university is. But there may be cases in which a better rating is actually a bad thing. It all depends on the mission of the university. Consider, for example, the case of the land-grant mission.
First, the land-grant mission, as framed by the Morrill Act of 1862, emphasizes the importance of access. Believers in the land-grant mission trust in the potential of students and in their capacity for self-improvement. They therefore want to give all qualified students a chance to succeed at their university. From the standpoint of the land-grant mission, the more qualified students a university accepts, the better it is in fulfilling its mission. That’s true even if it means enrolling a large share of those who apply. U.S. News, in contrast, factors into its ratings "student selectivity." In other words, the more students a college or university rejects, the more highly it is rated. The land-grant mission, therefore, leads to the opposite conclusion of the U.S. News ratings regarding what constitutes quality.
Second, the land-grant mission is about access because of a belief of its creators in the modifiability of human abilities. Such a view is consistent with a wide variety of psychological research indicating that people can become smarter.
So in taking students with a wider range of standardized test scores than would normally be admitted to highly selective universities, the land-grant university is betting that students can become smarter through a college education. They are emphasizing “throughput” rather than input. Their concern is with the value added by a college education more than by the input value shown by standardized tests.
On this view, relying heavily on standardized tests in college admissions locks students into a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby some, by virtue of their superior enculturation, socialization, and schooling, are given more opportunities, whereas others who have had fewer past opportunities are blocked off from better future opportunities. In essence, universities have created a “Matthew effect” through their admissions process, whereby to those who have more, comes more, and to those who have less, comes less.
Third, the land-grant mission leads us to wish to serve our states and the communities within our states by educating ethical leaders who will make a positive, meaningful, and enduring difference to the nation and the world. Ethical leaders come from all kinds of backgrounds. Through work or chores as well as through school and extracurricular activities, students learn the importance of creativity, integrity, hard work, self-reliance, responsibility, entrepreneurship, common sense, and how to work with others for a common good. ACTs and SATs measure important academic skills, but the scores do not measure these crucial characteristics of ethical leaders.
U.S. News does not count these characteristics at all in its ratings, but it does count ACT and SAT scores, which measure only a tiny sliver of the characteristics (in particular, knowledge and analytical reasoning with this knowledge) that have made our state and our nation great. Nor does U.S. News count some of the things land-grant universities value most, such as employing as many of our graduates as possible in meaningful, well-paying jobs.
Fourth, U.S. News values universities with higher retention rates, which makes sense. But it is much easier for a university to attain a high freshman retention rate if it accepts only students with sky-high high school grades and standardized test scores than if it accepts a broader range of students. Is it “better” to make the university’s task easier? Well, perhaps it is better if the university’s goal is to be as selective as possible. But it is worse if the university’s goal is to give as many qualified students as possible a chance to have a college education. Land-grant universities want to win the retention race, but they typically do not have the jet pack of top high-school grades and test scores strapped to the backs of the large majority of their racers. If they want to increase their U.S. News rating, they may be tempted to restrict admissions to students with strong academic backgrounds, again working against access.
Finally, U.S. News values colleges and universities on their “financial resources.” Many land-grant universities cannot and never will compete on financial resources with institutions that charge $50,000 to $60,000 or more a year in total expenses. They shouldn’t even try. Rather, land-grant universities, in order to promote access, can and should take pride in being as inexpensive as possible.
They could become more expensive and richer, but only at the expense of their mission. In Wyoming, for example, the State Constitution actually requires that education at our state colleges and university be as near to free as possible. U.S. News and similar raters of universities should not define what excellence is. A university’s fidelity to its mission should define what academic excellence is.
Universities that seek to enhance their published ratings, emanating from any of the media, risk sacrificing their mission for the sake of getting higher ratings. There is no one mission that is right for every college and university, and there is no one set of ratings that captures all the factors that lead to excellence in institutions with diverse missions.
Robert J. Sternberg is president of the University of Wyoming. The views expressed in this essay, however, are merely his own personal ones. A subsequent column will outline a proposal for how land-grant universities might appropriately be evaluated and ranked.
There is a certain uneasy pleasure to be taken, if one has had some argument with the Common Application, in the awareness that the current misfirings of the new version of the application has caused so much grief to so many people. Of course, some of the people who are inconvenienced, or, driven near mad, by the slow and painful release and correction of the new Common Application website are the very people who have taken great trouble and invested considerable time in the attempt to make the new version of this application available. Unlike the fiction of a "membership organization" that is the College Board, the Common Application really is overseen by thoughtful and experienced admissions deans and directors, and they have, no doubt, been embarrassed and inconvenienced by the problems with the new release.
Besides, and more significantly, virtually all admissions offices across the country have suffered from the delays. Worse, students and their counselors and their parents have been frustrated and vexed in their attempts simply to submit an application. So, any ungenerous pleasure really should be resisted, lest one imagine oneself in league with the opponents of Obamacare, who share a delight in the bedeviling technical troubles found in the health care exchanges, troubles that are interpreted as condemning the entire project. The problems caused by both faulty technical systems hurt, and we can only hope, despite any lingering arguments with the substance of the enterprises, that the glitches are untangled soon so people can go on about their important business.
We know some of the reasons why people resent the Affordable Care Act, but why would anyone resent the Common Application, to which no politics are attached and which seems designed only to make applying to college easier? If some people feel obligatory health care somehow denies citizens their rights — is it a right to be uninsured and find your family at risk? — how does the Common Application, when it works, hurt anyone?
The fact that the websites temporarily do not work is not really the issue, because both technical systems will be fixed sooner or later. Is the problem actually that something very important to so many people is controlled by a single entity, even if the entity is benign? We may be past the point where scruples about the centralization of power made possible, or necessary, by technical prowess and control can trouble us. Someone, the Common Application or the government or NSA or Google or Facebook, holds the trump cards, and if it isn’t them, then it looks like it will be someone else.
So, glitches aside, and the seeming inevitability of the move to a centralized, electronic nexus aside, why argue with the Common Application? Is it only my sentimental attachment to the Uncommon Application (an institutional, and lovably eccentric -- at least in my memory -- application, which seemed to work so well for the University of Chicago for so long), and my resentment at its passing, that leads to problems with the idea of the Common Application?
A more substantial reason than the merely personal is the likelihood that something important, and irreplaceable, is inevitably traded away in exchange for the ease of use (when it is working) of a universal application. Students express the wish to be relieved of the odious necessity of typing in their name and address five or six times (or, thanks, in part, to the Common Application, 15 or 20 times), and they are satisfied by having only one form to fill out, once.
The very ease of filling out the form, however, leads to systemwide problems. The ability to simply press the button and send off more applications seems likely to encourage more, and less well-considered, applications submitted per student, despite the Common Application administrators’ claims that this does not in fact happen. The counselors who work with students, and certainly the colleges, believe it does. (Could it be that, as is the case in almost everything else having to do with college admissions, we hear most, and most loudly, about the best counseled, most advantaged, most anxious students who are most likely to go overboard when submitting applications? And, that the most popular colleges are disproportionately the recipients of these extra applications? Perhaps average number of applications submitted per student is still kept low because the majority of student apply to one or a few colleges.)
In any case, I can assure you that colleges believe that adopting the Common Application will increase the number of applications received by something like 10 to 20 percent in its first year of use. Who and what is hurt by the fact that applying to college is made easier and the number of applications to any given college go up for mechanical, not thoughtful, reasons?
More applications make colleges “more selective,” whatever criteria for selection are put into play as more applications, sometimes vastly more applications, must be read and judged. Do the very criteria change by virtue of the huge number of applications many colleges must handle? For one thing, increases in the number of applications to be read mean either less time spent reading each application, and/or much bigger staffs of readers, many new, young, and exhausted, including outside readers distant from the full-time admissions office.
The suspicion that numbers — SAT or ACT scores, or grade point averages, or a count of the number of Advanced Placement classes taken, or anything to make decision making easier and faster — take on a new importance is hard to resist. When we speak of “holistic” evaluation, we imagine that at some point words, not simply numbers, matter, but who has time for a real consideration of, for example, essay writing, teacher letters, interview reports, entire transcripts, when so many applications need to be “read”? The Common Application, while inviting the easy submission of more applications, also invites easier and more expedient reading of applications, given the imposition of word limits on generic essays (though the topics are more interesting this year), drop down menus to provide digested bits of information, and the insistence on the inclusion of information, e.g., intended major or profession, that may be of interest to one college but may quickly sabotage an application at another.
Bard College is now making it possible for applicants to skip the Common Application if they are willing to write four essays in response to set, and (remarkably) sophisticated topics in the liberal arts and sciences. The Bard Entrance Examination, the BEE, eliminates the need to take and submit test scores, and to be subjected to other people’s generic questions and essay topics. This gesture is bold, and in asking for more work, more thought, more personal investment in the application, one small college challenges the idea that applying to college should be made easy. (Deep Springs, one very small college, has its own challenging application of another sort.) Bard will find out who is actually capable of thinking the way a Bard student is expected to think, the faculty will be asked to judge, and students will be honored by having their hard work carefully considered by the community they hope to join. Anyone who completes the BEE will know more about Bard and its expectations and ways than a student who simply applies to COLLEGE, rather than to a specific college.
The Common Application masks differences, which is surely a comfort to those institutions that would rather reveal as little as possible about themselves, so as not to discourage a single applicant. If the singular entrance examination is not likely to be a systematic solution to whatever problems the Common Application presents, it is at least a reminder that there was a time, not so long ago, when each admission staff did its best to write essay questions of particular value to that college, to decide exactly what information was necessary and would be useful in the consideration of a candidate, to convey in the very wording of the instructions the kind of relationship they wished to have with each applicant. That worked, and worked for students as well as colleges.
But, fewer applications were submitted then, and we know, whether we blame the ranking schemes or our commercial culture or greedy colleges, that ratings and prestige depend on application numbers, and ratings and prestige make presidents, boards, and alumni happy. The drive both to attract always more applicants in order to deny them admission now seems almost natural and legitimate. The pain involved in this bloated business is more easily ignored the farther someone is from the students who are necessarily confused by the deceptions and uncertainties engendered by the current system. And, the current system now runs on the Common Application, when it works.
Theodore A. O'Neill was formerly dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, where he currently is a lecturer.