Admissions & Student Aid

Amid Debate Over New Rival, Common Application Keeps Rolling

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The Common Application, having just handled nearly 1.1 million applications for more than 600 colleges, isn’t standing pat as the dominant player, with a new effort to help students apply for financial aid.
November 06, 2015

Although the new kid in town is causing a commotion, let’s not forget all about who was here first.

At the College Board’s annual forum here this week, admissions officials and college counselors have discussed — and dissected — the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success’s controversial plans for a new application system, still under construction.

Meanwhile, the Common Application was rolling through another admissions cycle, having transmitted nearly 1.1 million applications to more than 600 colleges worldwide since August.

Although a rival platform is getting all the attention right now, the organization behind the long-established application isn’t standing pat: Its leaders are also talking up innovations that could help more students, especially those in low-income families, get to college.

'It's making sure that all kids have a fair opportunity to get a college education.'
In an interview with The Chronicle on Thursday, Paul Mott, the Common Application’s chief executive officer, described his hopes for the organization’s next chapter. "It’s making sure that all kids have a fair opportunity to get a college education," Mr. Mott said. "You can’t have it if you don’t know how to prepare, and if you don’t know there are financial resources available to you."

The Common Application recently started a pilot project designed to increase the number of high-school students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa. Each year many students who are likely to be eligible for federal aid do not apply for it, which can reduce their odds of attending college.

Two weeks ago, the Common Application sent emails with detailed information about the Fafsa to 200,000 high-school students in its system. Many of those students had asked for application-fee waivers, had indicated that they were prospective first-generation college students, or both. The group plans to send those recipients further information in January, when students can apply for federal aid.

The "Fafsa nudge" campaign marks a first for the Common Application. "We want to interject financial-aid information into the admissions process," Mr. Mott said. The organization also wants to determine what kinds of messages work best — five versions of the email were sent. To that end, Benjamin L. Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, plans to lead research on the project’s effectiveness.

Mr. Castleman, author of The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education, described the Common Application on Thursday as "incredibly positioned" to reach great numbers of prospective college students.

Face-to-Face Outreach

The project is one example of how the Common Application is evolving. Another is "Scholar Snapp," an opt-in feature that allows Common App users to receive information about noncollege scholarships. Students who complete a Scholar Snapp profile can search for scholarship programs, entering their information only once and uploading it for each application. "It’s a Common App for scholarships," Mr. Mott said.

His organization is also considering low-tech ways to support college counselors. This past summer, representatives of the Common Application led a workshop for about 100 counselors from public high schools in San Diego, taking them through the Common App’s various features and steps. Recently, members of the organization participated in sessions about applying to college at two high schools in Fairfax, Va.

Several admissions and financial-aid officials at colleges that use the Common App have volunteered to help at similar events in the future, Mr. Mott said. It’s the kind of face-to-face outreach that just might prove more powerful than any high-tech tool, well designed or not.

'We've got to keep this as short and sweet and pleasant as possible.'
At this week’s College Board conference, several admissions officials predicted that the emergence of another application system would spark needed competition, leading to innovation that could benefit colleges and students alike. Although Mr. Mott did not disagree with that notion, he said the Coalition’s app had not affected his organization’s plans: "We are our own competition."

Whether or not that proves true over time, it’s clear that two different views of college access — and how to promote it within a consortium’s application — are taking shape. The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success has described its vision for changing the timeline of the admissions process by allowing students to engage with its forthcoming system as early as ninth grade.

The idea: Creating a virtual space for teenagers to learn about applying to college well before it’s time to do so would help them navigate the whole complicated and stressful transaction later on. Moreover, it might help them "develop aspirations, self-awareness, and habits of reflection" along the way, Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, said on Wednesday. He drew a distinction between helping students prepare for college and engaging them in the application process itself.

Mr. Mott sees it differently. "We’ve got to keep this as short and sweet and pleasant as possible," he said. "We don’t need to reinvent the wheel — we can add a lot of new information to what we already have."

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is eric.hoover@chronicle.com.