Admissions & Student Aid

Coalition’s Plans for New Application Platform Stir Debate

October 04, 2015

They came to listen, to question, and to vent. Most of all, they came early to get a good seat: Nobody wanted to miss the hottest discussion in town.

At the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference here on Saturday, a spirited crowd gathered to hear more about why 83 public and private colleges plan to build a shared college-application system, meant to “recast” the admissions process. Just a few days after the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success officially announced its intentions, three of the group’s representatives discussed their hopes for the controversial new platform during a panel session.

The three panelists described their project as a work in progress, a first draft that will need revisions, an idea loaded with potential. “We believe that we can leverage technology to help level the playing field in college admissions,” said Audrey Smith, vice president for enrollment at Smith College. The platform, she told the audience, represented innovation, something that doesn’t come easily to the admissions field.

In response to criticisms that had rained down since the plan was announced, Ms. Smith also described what the coalition didn’t believe. “We don’t believe we have a corner on access,” she said. “We don’t believe that we have all the answers.” When she added that participating colleges weren’t looking for “even more” applicants, though, a groan of skepticism rose from the crowd.

Barbara Gill, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Maryland at College Park, described how the system would help create a “more reflective, thoughtful, and educational” experience for applicants. To that end, she said, the platform’s “virtual college locker” (previously known as a “portfolio”) would allow students to upload videos, essays, reflections — and control who would have access to those materials.

The system would enable others to provide feedback and guidance to students. A shared application portal would make it easier for applicants to apply to participating colleges, uploading content from their lockers to each college that wants it.

A big idea behind the new application platform: Allowing high-school students to start profiles as early as ninth grade would help them plan for college, familiarizing themselves with the process, inviting a cast of helpful mentors, all within a time frame that would be, as Ms. Gill said, less “condensed.” At least that’s how the platform’s supporters envision it.

John F. Latting, assistant vice provost for undergraduate enrollment and dean of admission at Emory University, explained how the idea for the new application had grown out of frustrations with the Common Application, whose online system was bedeviled by various technical difficulties two years ago. When several concerned deans discussed possible alternatives, he said, some saw an opportunity to go beyond creating just another platform.

Eventually, Mr. Latting said, they settled on a theme: Expanding college access, especially for students who lack helpful guidance. “That’s where we felt like we could make a contribution,” he said. “We want to make the idea of going to college a part of their world, earlier.”

Questions and Skepticism

Finally, the audience got its turn. The line for the microphone was long enough for an all-day affair. One by one, college counselors expressed concerns that reminded everyone of the divide between students who have a lot and those who have little. Those with counselors who fly to admissions conferences and those who have no counselors at all. And for a half-hour, skepticism — of colleges’ motives, their commitment to access — flowed through many comments and questions.

Some high-school counselors complained that the coalition had been too vague about how the system would work. “Thank you for trying,” one college counselor said. “Good luck,” said another, dismissively, it seemed.

A college counselor from Baltimore asked why, if the group supported access, it had restricted its membership. (Participating colleges must have a six-year graduation rate of at least 70 percent.) If the platform is truly about helping disadvantaged students, the same counselor asked, why not make the application platform available only for low-income students?

Mary Hill, director of college counseling and academic planning at St. Paul Academy and Summit School, in Minnesota, described her mixed feelings about the venture. “I feel as if while no one in this room will argue with the title, the goal of access, all the challenging complexities that go with that,” she said, “I feel like you layer that onto this desire to have an application that serves the institutions better.” There was loud applause.

Ms. Hill also mentioned the coalition’s plan to make its platform available to high-school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors in January 2016, just a few months after announcing itself to the world. “This feels like a mad dash,” she said. “Don’t rush and, pardon me, screw it up.” There was more loud applause.

Another counselor said he suspected the new system would benefit affluent students, those with the kind of mentors who could help them navigate it. “I can’t disagree that that’s a risk,” said Mr. Latting. “Our intentions are good, and we’re going to be honest with ourselves.”

The coalition would lose members, Ms. Gill said, if too few disadvantaged students ended up using it. She described the group’s commitment to engaging partners, especially community-based organizations that support college access, that might help evaluate how the forthcoming application platform was serving disadvantaged students.

Eli Clarke, director of college counseling at Gonzaga College High School, in Washington, D.C., said he already worried about students' spending so much time preparing for college that they miss out on the high-school experience. What will happen when ninth graders can create a profile in an application system?

Mr. Clark also worried about students' inviting third parties into the application process: “One thing I tell my students is, ‘Everyone loves to play college counselor, but you only have one.’”

“You only have one … or none,” said Mr. Latting, referring to students who have little or no college counseling, the kind of students he thinks could benefit the most from the application.

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, played off that thought, asking for a show of hands. Who were the college counselors in the room? Those from private high schools far outnumbered those from public schools. “All students, schools, and counselors,” said Mr. Thacker, who supports the coalition, “deserve access to the kind of college-planning resources and tools and information we and our students enjoy.”

A few hours later, Ms. Smith, the head of enrollment at Smith, reflected on the session in an interview. “We don’t want to add gasoline to the fire,” she said of the college-admissions process, so often associated with anxiety and mystery. “It’s incumbent on us to develop a platform in such a way that it doesn’t become just another part of that. What we’re most interested in is serving under-resourced students.”

Ms. Smith said she understood many of the concerns expressed during the discussion. The coalition, she added, must communicate its goals more effectively, especially its plan to make the platform available to all students, not just those intending to apply to participating colleges.

One point of confusion is how, or if, colleges plan to use the content applicants upload from their virtual lockers. The coalition has described the feature as a place for students to store content that’s meaningful to them, sharing it — or not — with others as they please. Yet deans at some institutions have said they might be interested in evaluating, say, essays and videos that students opt to send.

The decision will be up to colleges, Ms. Smith said. “Some members have said, ‘Don’t waste our time,’ and others have said, ‘Yes, if you give us creative options, we’re going to look at this.’”

As the conference ended, there was much to consider, and perhaps that included human nature. Ms. Smith offered a quote that she attributed to a well-known politician: “People hate the status quo. The only thing they hate more is change.”

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.