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Breakaway Group Seeks ‘Retro Common App’

When a bandwagon becomes crowded, passengers get antsy. “The more the merrier” might sound good at first, but as popularity grows, the load has a way of weighing down the wheels. Sooner or later, a new bandwagon comes along.

Perhaps that’s a useful way of thinking about the latest news from the college-admissions realm. As The Chronicle first reported on Friday, a group of highly selective colleges is exploring the possibility of creating a shared application that students could use to apply to one or more of the participating institutions. Those behind the venture seek to build an alternative to the Common Application—only with a much smaller membership, bound by different requirements, according to a confidential May 12 draft of a request for proposals obtained by The Chronicle.

The new online system, tentatively scheduled to make its debut in 2016, could change how many students apply to college.

Possible participants include Emory, Harvard, Princeton, Vanderbilt, and Yale Universities; Carleton, Dartmouth, Pomona, Smith, and Williams Colleges; and the University of Chicago. The “Coalition,” as the group refers to itself in the document, also might include several public institutions, such as the Universities of Illinois, Maryland, and North Carolina, and the College of William & Mary.

The Coalition wants to use the new platform “to recast the nature of using common forms to apply to college,” the request for proposals says. The institutions involved “believe that a common umbrella for membership, focused on academically talented students as well as affordability for qualified applicants with need, could make it much easier for students to understand, apply for, and … to receive need-based financial aid.”

In an interview with The Chronicle on Friday, Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admission at Yale, described the group’s plans as far from firm. To date, the consortium includes 32 private and public colleges. Eventually, he speculated, the group could include 50 to 75 members, a fraction of the 548 colleges worldwide that use the Common Application.

Although the new consortium has yet to determine membership criteria or how it might characterize itself, some standards have emerged, Mr. Quinlan said. Participating private colleges must meet the full financial need of the students they admit; public universities must have six-year graduation rates of at least 70 percent.

“We don’t want to create another Common Application,” Mr. Quinlan said. “The desire is to give some sort of definition to the group. The Common App does not have that.”

At least not as much as it once did, some admissions officials believe. As the Common Application’s membership has swelled, more than doubling since 2004-5, the nonprofit group has wrestled with its identity. Once a small confederation of small private colleges, the association now includes large public institutions, like the Universities of Connecticut and of Michigan.

For years the Common Application was open only to those institutions that conduct “holistic” reviews, in which admissions staffs look at more than an applicant’s test scores and high-school grades. But in September, the organization announced that it would remove that requirement, effective next year. The change greatly expands the roster of potential members, since many colleges and universities do not require additional materials such as essays or short-answer responses.

Although some admissions officials applauded the Common Application for becoming less exclusive, others lamented it. One admissions dean who supports the plan for a new application calls the Common Application “kind of a diluted brand.” (The Common App’s interim chief executive, Paul Mott, could not be reached for comment over the weekend.)

Given the concerns about dilution, a new brand, used by a relatively small number of colleges, might have been inevitable. In September, Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University, made a prescient comment. A likely scenario, he told The Chronicle, was that “the most-selective institutions would break away to form their own ‘retro Common App’ with the panache of the original.”

That’s a fair description of what’s happening, it seems. Although discussions of the new system arose from frustrations with the Common Application’s many glitches during the 2013-14 admissions cycle, it’s clear that the admissions officials involved seek more than a back-up application, a second egg basket to use in case the Common App goes haywire again. Otherwise, the colleges might be content to join the Universal College Application, used by 46 colleges.

“We are exploring new technology,” said Mr. Quinlan, at Yale. “It’s clear to us that there are some potential options out there that could even change the nature of what applying to college looks like.”

How? Although Mr. Quinlan emphasized that the details, like the Coalition itself, are “still very much in development,” he offered a few possibilities for the as-yet-unbuilt application. A “planning space” in which applicants may store a portfolio of their work before they are ready to start the application process. A feature that would allow students to share their portfolios with college counselors, community-based organizations, and mentors, who could comment on the materials. A more-intuitive, user-friendly design interface. An April 20 memorandum obtained by The Chronicle asks: “Does technology exist to increase flexibility for students to upload responses and creatively answer applications (video, artistic, fonts, colors …)?”

The consortium also intends to use the platform to make a statement about affordability, according to Mr. Quinlan and other deans who have participated in planning discussions. That is, the affordability of participating colleges.

That April memo, sent among members of the group, includes a list of “potential messaging and talking points.” One: “Colleges and universities committed to meeting students’ full demonstrated financial need spend significant institutional resources in support of financial aid. Such schools want to make sure applicants and their families know about the availability of need-based aid and believe families and students will have improved access to such information through the online admissions application system being developed.”

How the colleges might use the application to send a message about college costs and the financial assistance they offer remains to be seen. Details, such as how, exactly, the colleges might define “meets full need” (with grants? with grants and loans?) have not been hammered out, Mr. Quinlan said.

Still, expect proponents of the new venture to frame their message around the goal of promoting access, just as the Common Application cast its recent decision to remove its holistic-review requirement as a means of “reducing barriers to access.” But would that be the consortium’s sole purpose?

No, according to one admissions dean who plans to participate in it. Although he envisions the platform as a means of reaching out to high-achieving students who lack financial resources, he described a second motive. “It’s also self-serving,” he said, “in the way that we’re all self-serving.”

The power of association is strong. A new application platform, marketed in a particular way, just might help a small band of colleges and universities distinguish themselves further—to stand apart from the big crowd of institutions now gathered beneath the Common App’s banner.

News of the consortium reminded DePaul’s Mr. Boeckenstedt of the Overlap Group. One line from the request for proposals stood out for him: “There is also interest in establishing a new collaborative option for individual higher-education institutions as they work in their own ways to enroll the very best and most diverse freshman classes they can.”

Mr. Boeckenstedt, who said he could only speculate on the new application system, shared some thoughts in an email to The Chronicle: ”As I look at the uber-selectives, some of whom are clearly waist-deep in the arms race to reach the ‘as close to zero as possible’ admit rate, I wonder if this new system isn’t really designed to do the same thing via admissions. That is, deciding among themselves what information to share, such as the other schools applied to, rank order, or other information that would allow them to use precious admissions slots only on those students with the highest propensity to enroll at their institutions. Alternatively, it could be a way to parcel out the low-income students among themselves, in a way that limits their exposure.”

Marie Bigham, director of college counseling at the Greenhill School, in Dallas, told The Chronicle that she had thought a lot about what a new application option might mean for students. “I applaud anybody,” she said, “who can look at our current college-admissions process, and who wants to think about it in a more-creative way—who can say, How can we do this better?”

Still, Ms. Bigham was skeptical. “If you have a fairly small, narrow, and, in terms of selectivity, elite group of schools say they’re going to develop a whole new process,” she said, “how does that help kids who already struggle to find their way through the process we have? I’m worried that this is going to become another list of colleges that gets fetishized, that it just becomes the Common App for the most elite, selective, or rich.”

In an email, Mr. Quinlan reiterated that the Coalition was a work in progress. “I can tell you that we are focused on improving the student’s information and experience through this process,” he wrote.

The new bandwagon’s course has yet to be determined, but one thing is certain: Plenty of people are eager to see where it goes.

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