The Common App Is No More: How the Coalition Is Changing College Applications
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New-Common-AppFor decades now, high school students and other college applicants use the Common Application system to gain admission into undergraduate college programs offered by any of the member colleges and universities. The system has over 500 colleges and universities in its roster of members. Most of the schools are in the US, while some are located in European countries like Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, and the UK.

Also referred to as Common App, the system has aimed to provide a comprehensive admission process that combines objective factors like standardized tests and class standings with subjective factors like school recommendation and essays. But just this second half of 2015, a number of prominent colleges and universities has announced that they will be using a new platform that will serve as an alternative college application system. The new group’s efforts could very well reverse the process established by Common Application.

This new application is spearheaded by a group called Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. It counts as its members over 80 of the leading American colleges and universities, including Harvard University, Yale University, and Stanford University. The Coalition aims to provide students with the chance to have the best possible higher education experience that starts right at the college application stage.

Right now, the Coalition app is hogging the spotlight on higher education news. The reason for that is simple. While it may have all the indications of a coup or mutiny against the Common App because most member institutions of the new Coalition are presently using the former system, the bigger issue lies in the fact that student applications for 2016 may be affected by the Coalition’s initiatives.

The Appeal for Improved College Admissions

The creation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success came amidst the education sector’s calls for better admissions process in colleges and universities. Just recently, the College Board announced that it will be introducing an updated SAT. On top of that, more higher education institutions are considering or have already implemented a test-optional admissions process.

In an industry where any initiative for reform is met with difficulty simply because colleges and universities often find it impossible to move in the same direction, the establishment of the new Coalition serves as a guiding light. For one, the Coalition seems to have found the key that will allow member institutions to get past issues like legal problems concerning the setting of tuition fee rates or school collaboration on student aid. The fact that the Coalition counts the leading private and public schools in the country as members can only mean that the group is not only serious about working toward college admission reforms, but also in paving the way to aligning the interests of different institutions.

The Essence of the Coalition

The new application system will use a platform where high school students can create and showcase their portfolios online. By doing so, ninth grade students will be able to ponder more about the learning and other skill sets that they achieve in high school. In effect, higher education admissions officers, career counselors, and other interested groups can better mentor high school seniors on which college programs to take. Moreover, this can cut down the disadvantages faced by students coming from high schools with minimal or no guidance counselling services.

Aside from offering a more individualized application process, the Coalition members will also work to provide students with affordable college education. The group is open to both public and private colleges and universities. Colleges and universities who want to join the Coalition must have an average of 70% federal graduation rate within a six-year period.

For public schools, the group will push for affordable need-based in-state tuition grants for students who are residents of the respective school’s state. Meanwhile, for private institutions, the Coalition will act on providing aid that will satisfy the full demonstrated requirements of each admitted domestic student.

Indeed, the goals of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success are nothing short of ambitious. But judging from all the Ivy League, liberal arts, and public colleges and universities that have joined the group, the new college application system that they want to establish can pose a threat to the Common App.

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Main Components That Power Coalition Efforts

The Coalition will carry out its work by focusing on three components. These are all designed to revamp how college applicants, institutions, and all stakeholders view the entire college admissions procedures. For one, the Coalition’s efforts will make it difficult for anyone to falsely stuff their résumés because attention will be shifted toward the student’s experiences in high school. Here are the three components that the Coalition will use in its endeavors.

  1. Build Student Portfolio

Beginning in ninth grade, high school students will be given a chance to build their own portfolio through a free online platform. Students can showcase their essays, best work, extracurricular activities, and anything that they are most proud of in their years in high school. Of course, a student can choose to share their portfolio or not, whether entirely or partly.

Using the same online platform, college admissions officers will then be able to provide assistance to and answer questions by students on a regular basis. All these will help the student prepare for college application.

The portfolio platform where the student portfolio and overall application system will be stored and processed will be will be built by CollegeNet free of charge. But it is likely that the company will subsequently charge Coalition institutions with fees on a per-applicant basis. The platform will be launched in January 2016. CollegeNet specializes in college admissions technology services and it is a big advocate of college admissions reform through the Education Conservancy group.

  1. Boost Interaction

The online portfolio will create and stimulate interaction between students and college admissions managers. Depending on the privacy settings that students will use in their portfolios, the Coalition hopes that people who are in the position to provide guidance will be able to check on how students are performing in their high school studies. College admissions officers will be able to offer feedback to students not just during their senior year, but even during their freshmen year.

Pamela T. Home is the vice provost for the enrollment management department at Purdue University, a Coalition member institution. She feels uneasy thinking about countless students who excel in math and science subjects but may well be wasting their talents simply because there’s no one to motivate and advise them on which courses to take in college. But with this new platform from the Coalition, students can interact with admissions managers.

  1. Set Up New Application System

The Coalition will provide not only an online platform where students can build their portfolios, but they will also establish a new application system. This application process will include the one-time creation of student profile with the usual details like name and school. In addition to that, student applicants can go to sections where they can provide answers to or create essays for specific colleges or universities. By linking all the materials that the student has prepared for each institution, more work will be added to his or her portfolio.

In short, the prospective college applicants will no longer worry about which essay topic to write about. Instead, they simply have to count on their work in their portfolios for college admission. This new application system will be launched by summer 2016.

Why Should Schools Join the Coalition?

According to Stephen M. Farmer, vice president of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s enrollment and undergraduate admissions office, the Coalition provided an innovative approach that allows institutions to interact with students from the low-income bracket, therefore college admissions managers are able to help students prepare for college application at a much earlier time. In effect, the schools get a broader view of what makes up a student’s talents. This means colleges and universities can help in developing high school talents instead of simply choosing applicants from a pool of already talented or qualified applicants.

At Pomona College, Seth Allen, the school’s dean and vice president for admissions and financial aid, points out that the Coalition’s goals will ultimately benefit high school students who do not have enough resources to get them to college. Thanks to the increased interaction between student applicants and institutions, college admissions managers can act as counselors that will guide students on which college paths to take.

For many member colleges and universities, the portfolio system will bring educational values back into the application process. By allowing higher education schools to ask their own unique questions and allowing students to draw answers from their own portfolio of school materials, college admissions will become more dynamic and even create a ripple effect that could change high school education system itself.

Ultimately, with the Coalition system, institutions will be able to modify their application process to suit their needs. For one, Coalition schools can ask students to present parts of their high school portfolio rather than submit additional essays or videos. In short, the Coalition application process is expected to be a lot more flexible. This is not the case with the Common App which is often described as having a formulaic approach to college application, where institutions can do little to customize their own process.

Why Some Schools Want to Stick to Common App?

The goals of the Coalition could truly revolutionize college application. Even so, many colleges and universities have expressed their reservations about joining the group.

For Aba G. Blankson, Common Application’s director of communications, it doesn’t matter if the Coalition is directly challenging the Common App. For as long as the Coalition helps more students get into college programs, then it would have done its job with flying colors. “Ultimately, that is what it’s all about,” Director Blankson said. However, she doubts whether the Coalition app would be the ideal platform for students coming from low-income households.

Last year alone, 860,000 college applicants use the Common App and more than 30% of them were first-generation college students. Further analysis of these figures revealed that many of the students enrolled at institutions that are open to disadvantaged applicants. And more often than not, these same institutions do not enjoy the high graduation rates required by the Coalition.

Director Blankson pointed out that all high school students deserve an opportunity to be admitted into college. Having a high college graduation rate requirement (average of 70% over a six-year period), the Coalition app could limit the number of their member institutions and, in turn, limit the opportunities for disadvantaged high school students. In contrast, the broad diversity of Common App institutions mean students have a better chance of finding the college or university where they will fit in.

Another concern zeroes in on the use of student portfolios during application, which is one of the new Coalition’s key features. Portfolios would contain the essays, school work, extracurricular activities and other details shared by students on the Coalition platform. Institutions will refer to the student portfolios when mentoring students or picking which ones qualify for their college programs.

Indeed, the goal of using portfolios will allow students to think about and work on their college admissions early in their high school years. But some educators say that forcing students to build their portfolios early on can result to admissions stress on the part of young students.

Lastly, there’s the question about equity or fairness in schools that use both Common App and Coalition platform. Patrick O’Connor is the associate dean of college counseling over at Cranbrook Schools and he is concerned about how institutions would evaluate applications if they are using both systems. For example, if one college applicant submits an essay following the Common App prompt and another applicant presents a portion of the portfolio item under the Coalition platform, how would the college admissions officer fairly measure the qualities of both submissions under two different systems?

The Coalition and Community College Transfers

The list of Coalition colleges and universities show that University of California (UC) campuses are conspicuously missing from the roster. This is surprising for two reasons. First, the UC system has some of the top universities in the country. Two, most of the university’s divisions can satisfy the Coalition’s minimum requirement for graduation rates.

The University of California’s spokesperson, Dianne Klein, points out that when the new Coalition presented their proposal to include the university, their application system did not have features that would address community college transfers. For a university that highly considers transfer students, the proposal was not in line with the institution’s interests.

One point of contention was how the university can evaluate application from the same students who want to apply to multiple UC campuses, including those that do not meet the minimum graduation rate set out by the Coalition.

The good news is, according to Klein, the group is coming up with a plan to include transfer options for community college applications. But for now, community college institutions like UC will have to wait and see for the Coalition’s new plans before they can join the organization.

Final Note

With more than 600 colleges and universities using the Common Application system, there is no doubt that it can put a lot of weight in present college application process. Indeed, the 80 higher education institutions that will use a new system under the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success in 2016 pales in comparison with the number of Common App schools. But judging from the Coalition’s goals and the names and caliber of the institutions that have joined their efforts, it’s easy to see that they will soon rival the Common App.

The operative word here is rival, not replace. The Coalition should not be viewed and is not intended as replacement to the Common App. After all, the Coalition system will not be required for all institutions even as it goes live in 2016. In other words, many of the group’s members will still accept college applications done via the Common App.

In the end, this new application system will provide students with another option when it comes to applying to colleges and universities. This is crucial particularly when one system breaks down just like in 2013 when Common App encountered problems. For now, it’s too early to tell if colleges and universities will prefer one application system over the other. But if the Coalition wants to be a success, all its member institutions must work to continuously push the envelope in college application. To know more about the Coalition, view the complete list of member institutions.