The Complexity of ‘Fast Apps’

New Orleans—Few issues spark debate like “fast applications” do, at least if you’re in the company of admissions officers and high school counselors. “There’s a lot of emotion around this issue,” says Beth Wiser, director of admissions at the University of Vermont. Depending on who you ask, fast-track applications (aka VIP apps, snap apps, prepopulated apps) are either useful tools that benefit colleges and applicants alike, pernicious instruments that have cheapened the application process, or both.

On Friday, Ms. Wiser helped lead an in-depth discussion about how and why colleges embrace various kinds of applications. One takeaway was that not all fast apps are the same; they can be just as different as colleges themselves. Moreover, the usefulness of the strategy may well change over time.

Several years ago, Vermont started using a fast app amid plans to grow its undergraduate enrollment by about 25 percent. The university sent its “VIP Application” to select prospects with specific test scores and self-reported grade-point averages. The pitch: recipients would pay no application fee and receive a decision within 21 days. The application was relatively short, and required an essay (though not a “new” one).

That strategy helped Vermont expand its applicant pool. In 2002, the university received 9,800 applications; for this year’s freshman class, it received more than 22,000. “It was necessary for our institutional vitality,” Ms. Wiser said of the VIP Application. “Many students said they applied because they got this app and then they fell in love with the campus. That really is a new good-news story when students are finding their place.”

Nonetheless, Vermont officials ultimately decided to stop using VIP Application. For one thing, it had steadily grown its enrollment and did not need to grow it further.

Meanwhile, the VIP Application, which only some students received, had caused “confusion in the marketplace,” Ms. Wiser said. Some counselors and parents had called  about the VIP Application, asking, ”Is this for real? Is it true?” Going with just one application for everyone, Ms. Wiser concluded, would help make the process more transparent.

As the admissions office moved to a paperless system, the time also seemed right to use the Common Application exclusively. In the most recent admissions cycle, the same subset of students (about 13,000) who previously would have received a fast app were invited to apply via the Common Application. Those students were offered the same incentives as before (no application fee and a decision within 21 days or so). In other words, select prospects still got some VIP treatment, but they used a different vehicle to respond.

After dropping the fast app, Ms. Wiser and her staff expected to see a decline (of up to 10 percent) in submissions. Yet applications held steady, the diversity of the pool increased slightly, and so did average test scores. Over all, the university’s yield held steady, though its yield for out-of-state students dipped slightly.

The VIP Application was effective, Ms. Wiser said. Nonetheless, she described wrestling with the knowledge that while some students love fast applications, others are turned off by them. She has also wondered about market saturation. As fast apps become more common, will their usefulness fade? And what are the ethical implications of using fast apps on a large scale?

Burke Rogers, director of college counseling at St. George’s School, in Rhode Island, raised the latter question on Friday when he urged admissions officers in the room to think hard about inviting students to apply, only to reject them. “There are some whose hopes are raised and then dashed,” he said. “We’re there when the bad news comes—you see the kids that you take.”

Ms. Wiser acknowledged those concerns, as did Stephanie Dupaul, associate vice president for enrollment management at Southern Methodist University, which recently added a prepopulated app (with students’ names and addresses filled in) to its menu of options. Southern Methodist now sends the application to all of its prospects.

Still, SMU’s fast app is not as fast as others. Like the university’s traditional application, the new one requires students to write an essay and explain why they’re interested in the university; applicants who use the form must still submit a fee, and they abide by the same deadlines as before.

Prepopulated apps have appeal, however. “Students like to see their names in print,” Ms. Dupaul said.

After introducing the new option last September, SMU’s applications increased to 10,300, up from 8,200 the previous year (the university also uses the Common Application). With that surge came more out-of-state applicants and more highly qualified applicants.

This news prompted one counselor from Texas to stand up and lament the change. He had thought SMU was “awesome” already, he said. Now he worried about the increased competition for spaces.

“How is this sustainable?” he said. ”Where are we going with this? Where does it stop?” He added: “It seems insane, in a way.”

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