Restore the Purpose of the Common Application
Jim Wolfston says that it should focus on basic information (which should be common to all colleges) and that colleges should then design applications that reflect their values and help students express themselves.
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.
Jim Wolfston is CEO and founder of CollegeNet.
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