Saturday, December 14, 2013

Some history of the Common App

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has a long, informative article on the Common App and the recent troubles with its computer systems, from which I excerpt below:

The Uncommon Rise of the Common App

Although the Common Application is now a vast, bustling highway, it was once just a shortcut. Its founding purpose: to make applying to college easier.
Back before the computer, applicants and counselors had to write or type answers to the same questions on every college's application. Each year the nation's hands cramped up. Then, in 1975, Colgate University, Vassar College, and a handful of other private institutions with similar admissions requirements created a common form that students could photocopy and mail in.
This modest stand against redundancy was infused with a high-minded mission: increasing access by going beyond grades and test scores to conduct robust evaluations of each applicant. "It was a time for reaffirming what was important in admissions," says Mary F. Hill, a former dean of admissions at Colgate who served on the Common Application's board of directors from 1996 to 2005.
By the mid-1990s, more than 150 colleges—all private, all relatively selective—were using the Common Application, run by a network of volunteers. In 1996 the National Association of Secondary School Principals dedicated a staff member to handle logistics and the increasing volume of paperwork. The application then was a booklet of perforated forms with maroon type; the masthead listed participating colleges in small print. Each year, as more names were added, the letters shrank.
The Common App first went online in 1998. To keep up with growth, the board hired a staff and incorporated as a nonprofit organization. It also agreed to admit public universities, the first six of which joined in 2001.
At least until this fall, ease of use has made the Common App a success by any measure. According to its tax return for 2011, the organization, based in Arlington, Va., generated $13-million in revenue. Of the group's 517 members, 178 offer no other way to apply. The fee structure rewards exclusivity. Nonexclusive members pay $4.75 per application; exclusive members pay $4. Colleges that further "streamline" their policies—by having no more than two early-admission plans, for instance—pay only $3.75. All nine admissions officials on the organization's board represent exclusive users.
The Common Application now has nine employees, but it expects to grow to 65. Next summer, as part of a long-term acquisition plan, the organization will hire about 30 employees who now work for a company called Hobsons, which designed and developed the new online system. (Hobsons also owns Naviance, which high schools use to send documents to colleges, and the website College Confidential.)
In the admissions profession, the Common App is ubiquitous. This year it was the lone platinum sponsor of the National Association for College Admission Counseling's annual conference, for which it paid $50,000. (The Chronicle was also a sponsor of the event.) Recently the Common App gave the association $80,000 to send 80 college counselors to a professional-development workshop. Each year it mails a poster to every high school in the nation, listing its ever longer roster of colleges.
With visibility comes cachet. Joining the Common Application in 1990 was an important move for Ursinus College, says Richard G. DiFeliciantonio, vice president for enrollment. "There was status associated with that membership," he says. "It confirmed our position in the marketplace."
Now he believes the benefits have less to do with prestige than with scale. The wider a college's recruitment net, the more applicants of every kind it can attract. He credits the Common App with helping Ursinus double its enrollment of both nonwhite students and those eligible for federal Pell Grants.
Mr. DiFeliciantonio also sees trade-offs. With more applications, "yield"—the percentage of accepted students who enroll—declines and becomes harder to predict. (A law of recruitment: More applicants doesn't necessarily mean more serious applicants.) And member colleges must relinquish some authority over the questions they can and cannot ask. "We were willing to put up with a loss of control," he says, "to get with the herd."
The Common Application is not without competitors. College­NET, an Oregon-based technology company, builds customized application-processing systems for some 500 colleges worldwide. After creating an account through, say, Washington State University, a student can automatically transfer basic information to another member college that has signed on to that service.
Joshua J. Reiter, who helped build the Common Application's first online system, went on to start the Universal College Application in 2007. The for-profit company is a small rival, for sure: Membership peaked at about 80 colleges a few years ago, then dwindled to 32, in part because those that also belonged to the Common App decided it was simpler to manage just one system. But since problems with the Common Application arose, Princeton University and seven other colleges have joined or rejoined the Universal College Application, which admissions deans say charges $1,000 annually, plus $4.50 per application.
Timeline: The Common Application, 1975-2013
1975: The Common Application begins a pilot program with 15 member institutions, primarily selective liberal-arts colleges.
1980: Passes 100 members.
1994: Harvard U. becomes the first Ivy League member; Dartmouth College follows the next year.
1998: First online application system launches.
2000: The Common Application incorporates as a nonprofit; passes 200 members.
2001: The Universities of Delaware, Vermont, and Maine are among the first public institutions to join.
2004: Binghamton University becomes the first State University of New York campus to join; by 2011, 18 other SUNY campuses will have joined.
2007: Passes 300 members.
2010: First international institutions join; passes 400 members; number of unique applicants exceeds 500,000.
2013: Paper application is retired; passes 500 member institutions; fourth generation of the online application faces technical difficulties and criticism.

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