Common Application Plans for (More) Growth

New Orleans—Pick whatever metaphor you like to describe the Common Application’s continued growth: When I close my eyes, I think of it as a freight train adding cars. During the past admissions cycle, the not-for-profit organization served 575,000 unique applicants, an 18 percent one-year increase, and processed 2.4 million applications, a 24-percent surge.

In any business, growth often necessitates changes. On Thursday morning, the Common Application’s board of directors announced several of them. For one thing, the organization plans to build a new Web interface, from scratch, that would debut in August 2013. (Although details about promised “cool, new features” are still forthcoming, board members say the new portals for students, admissions officers, and counselors will be more user-friendly and more “intuitive.”)

The new Common Application system will also be more “scalable,” says Rob Killion, the organization’s executive director. After all, the current online system was not designed to handle the projected increases in volume. Mr. Killion anticipates that 750,000 students will use the Common Application to file about three million applications during the current admissions cycle. “All indications are that this rapid growth … is not only continuing, but accelerating,” Mr. Killion said.

As the Common Application Inc. prepares to process more and more applications, it also plans to expand the size of its staff. That means bringing everything that the organization now outsources under one roof—in its brand-new headquarters, in Arlington, Va. Currently, eight people work for the organization, which pays a company called Hobsons to manage the IT staff that makes the online application run.

By 2014, however, the Common Application Inc. plans to acquire that staff, which includes nearly 30 employees, and hire other in-house staff. Mr. Killion anticipates that the organization could employ as many as 50 people in three years. “We’re growing up,” he said. “It’s time to leave the nest, and it’s time to become self-sufficient.”

What will all this cost? A lot. Mr. Killion expects that building the new interface and acquiring the right to hire part of Hobsons’ staff will run about $10-million. As you ponder the enormity of that sum, consider the other news that Mr. Killion shared with members this morning. When the new system goes live, the organization plans to reduce its prices, although Mr. Killion said it was too soon to say how big those reductions would be. (Member colleges that use the Common Application exclusively now pay $4 per submission; colleges that also accept other applications pay $4.75 per submission.)

This announcement drew a round of applause from the audience, mostly composed of admissions deans and enrollment officers representing dozens of the Common Application’s 456 member colleges. But one woman, from a Midwestern liberal arts college, stood up and asked a question that many have asked before.

“How big,” she said, “is the Common App willing to get?”

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