Indianapolis — The Common Application will no longer require member colleges to conduct “holistic” reviews of applicants, the organization announced on Friday. The change in policy will allow institutions that do not require admission essays or recommendations to join the 549 colleges worldwide that use the standardized online admission form.
Officials of the Common Application discussed the change, effective with the 2015-16 admissions cycle, during a session Friday morning here at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference. In an interview on Thursday, Paul Mott, the Common App’s interim chief executive officer, told me that feedback from admissions officers and high-school counselors had persuaded the organization’s Board of Directors to make the change. “Our membership has said unequivocally that we must do more to increase access,” he said, “and this is reducing these barriers to access and pointless friction.”
Mr. Mott, a former college counselor, described himself as a strong believer in holistic evaluations, in which admissions staffs look at more than each applicant’s high-school grades and test scores. But, he said, “there is an inherent tension between holistic review and unfettered access.”
In short, the announcement marks a significant shift for the Common App, which has long maintained that holistic review and access went hand in hand. Late last year, Scott Anderson, the Common App’s senior director for policy, described the organization’s philosophy this way: “We fully believe there’s a best way to admit students to college, to use holistic review, and we provide a service to make that happen.”
In changing its membership criteria, the nonprofit organization essentially has responded to a longstanding criticism: that if the Common App were truly common, it would be open to the many institutions that do not ask applicants for all the things that the nation’s most selective colleges do. Down the line, the change means that less-selective institutions are likely to overlap with the more-selective ones within the same portal that more than 800,000 students used to submit applications in 2013-14.
All of that happened because of some editing. Earlier this week, the Common App’s Board of Directors revised the group’s mission statement, which since 2001 has included this sentence: “Membership is open to colleges and universities that promote access by evaluating students using a holistic selection process.” The organization has defined that as requiring an untimed writing sample of at least 250 words and at least one recommendation from a high-school counselor or teacher.
The revised mission statement says: “The Common Application is a not-for-profit membership organization committed to the pursuit of access, equity, and integrity in the college-admission process.” Although the organization has yet to set its new membership criteria, Mr. Mott said the revised mission statement would pave the way for colleges to join even if they did not plan to use the Common App’s essay, now required of all applicants who use the system. So a member institution might continue to ask applicants to complete the Common App’s writing prompt as well as additional essays—or no essays at all.
Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Common App’s Board of Directors, said if a member college decided to require, say, a 30-second video instead of an essay, it would be free to do so. In other words, the Common App, often criticized for “policing” the admissions policies of its members, plans to take a step back from its watchdog role. (At Friday morning’s session, some admissions deans described the new mission statement as an acknowledgment that there’s no way to know for sure whether a member college is, in fact, conducting holistic reviews.)
“You ask the questions that you need to ask, it’s up to you,” Mr. Furda said of member colleges. “We’re not going to be putting this barrier in front of students.”
Some colleges surely will applaud the change, just as others surely will hate it. For now, one thing seems clear: The Common Application just expanded the roster of potential members greatly. Whether that’s good news or bad news depends, perhaps, on your view of a complicated question: Just how easy should it be to apply to college?
“I’m all for opening it up, but it’s going to take some engineering in terms of what defines access in a realm of high selectivity,” Paul Thiboutot, dean of admissions and financial aid at Carleton College and a former member of the Common App’s Board of Directors, said on Friday. “It was just a matter of time that the Common App would have to wrestle with how universal membership should become.”
Over the weekend, other admissions officials were just beginning to consider what the new policy might mean for colleges. Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University, noted that many institutions that admit a high percentage of their applicants use the essay for borderline cases, if at all.
“I’ve long been in favor of making it easier to apply to college, and greater and broader adaptation of the Common App would help in that regard…,” Mr. Boeckenstedt wrote in an e-mail. “I would be concerned about what happens if a single vendor dominates the process, however, as reverse switching costs would be substantial if a policy changed to the detriment of the members. I would suspect that would be unlikely however, and believe there is no going back. The more likely scenario would be that the most-selective institutions would break away to form their own ‘retro Common App’ with the panache of the original.”