Admissions & Student Aid

Common App’s New Leader Ponders College Access — and Holographic Video Interviews

May 20, 2016

U. of Puget Sound
Jenny Rickard, the newly named executive director of the organization behind the Common App: "One of the idealistic hopes that I have is that the Common Application, working with membership institutions and counselor partners, is to think about how we might be able to restore humanity to this process."
The Common Application announced on Thursday the appointment of Jenny Rickard as its new executive director. Later in the day The Chronicle caught up with Ms. Rickard, now vice president for enrollment at the University of Puget Sound, in Washington state, to ask about her plans for the nonprofit organization behind the widely used admissions-application platform. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q. You’ve worked in the enrollment field for a long time. Why do you want to lead an organization that oversees an online application?

A. I believe deeply in the transformational effect that higher education has on students, as well as our whole society. I have been committed to access for everyone who wants to pursue that avenue. That really is what drives me every day in my own enrollment work. And when I look at the Common App, it really is an engine for college access. We have nearly 700 member institutions, and nearly 33 percent of our applicants are the first in their families to go to college.

Q. College access. It’s a ubiquitous word. Everyone says they’re for it. But what does it really mean to promote access? How do you measure that commitment?

A. Yeah, it’s a short word that means a lot, and it is ubiquitous. College access begins very early on in a student’s life, and it often gets pigeonholed into just one aspect. People might think access is financial aid, but you can’t get the financial aid unless you get in, and you can’t be admitted unless you think about applying, and you’re not going to think about applying unless you’ve been a part of a college-going culture. It’s really a continuum. I see the Common App as being able to influence that.

Q. How?

A. Our new website takes students, from their middle-school through their high-school years, through the kinds of things they need to be thinking about. This year we did a pilot program, called "Fafsa nudge," to remind them to submit their Fafsas [Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. We are starting to venture out, working with our own members, to do outreach in their communities, to help them understand how to use these tools to plan for college.

Q. So technology’s cool and all. But technology can’t help young people who don’t have know-how, or the motivation to apply to college in the first place, or even a semi-helpful adult to guide them. How could the Common Application help with all that?

A. One of the things that I have really appreciated about the Common Application is the nature of the membership. The commitment to access, integrity, and equity. And the relationships that member institutions have with school counselors, and, obviously, other member institutions and key partners in this effort. Because it really takes relationships among each other to be able to focus on providing students with an education. And to do that we all really need to work together. Technology does not replace relationships. Relationships are key to providing access and to meeting our institutional goals as well.

Q. We’ve heard a lot of talk lately about how the ritual of applying to college is in dire need of reinvention, or some kind of big-hearted reform that might help colleges promote "character." Do you agree that change is needed? And, if so, what should change?

A. The Common Application is in a unique situation to have policies and ideas represented in a transaction. One of the idealistic hopes that I have is that the Common Application, working with membership institutions and counselor partners, is to think about how we might be able to restore humanity to this process. How do we use technology to reinforce relationships while keeping the focus on the fact that we do want students to enjoy their high-school years? We want them to get the most out of all parts of their lives. What might the Common App be able to do to put policy and ideas into practice?

Q. But this is where some skeptical person might say, "Wait, humanity? The Common App is the very engine that drives the mass-market, mass-produced process of applying to college that we have today."

A. I can absolutely see someone saying that. I can point to the Common App as just being one piece of the puzzle. There are lots and lots of marketing firms out there. There are lots of people who are out to benefit from the college-admissions process, and who are incenting schools to increase their application numbers. The Common App happens to the application many people will use, but I can’t say it’s the only reason for all that.

Q. What’s your early sense of how the Common Application — the application platform itself — might evolve over time?

A. We are in the process of thinking ahead in terms of future technology. I can see other services that we might think about providing. We will continue to engage our members about what complementary solutions would add value to their work going forward.

Q. So is it premature — or too Jetsons — to ask whether the Common App might someday include a hologram-interview feature allowing students to engage with colleges virtually?

A. Well, George Jetson, I don’t think so. Technology is evolving so quickly. At Puget Sound, we work with an organization that does [live, unscripted video] interviews for us internationally. How might technology like that be brought into an app? Something like hologram interviews, maybe it keeps the process human. I can certainly see something like that. How we get there, I’m not sure yet. The key thing is having technology that people actually want to use.

Q. Anyone who works in the trenches of recruitment, who gets knee-deep in revenue projections while trying to forecast the whims of teenagers, surely learns some important lessons along the way. Tell me about one that’s stuck with you.

A. The first thing that came to my mind, and it’s twofold, is that it all works out. That gets to the stress that students are experiencing, the uncertainty they feel when applying to college. My advice has always been it’s all going to work out — it’s what you make of that situation.

And that’s true for the enrollment person in these challenging times. Even though you may not get the exact numbers you want, it’s going to work out for the institution. You’re going to be able to help the institution move forward based on what you learned from what didn’t work out.

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.