The “Not-So-Common” Common App

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

For students who are planning on going to college or university, a major complaint is the complexity of the application process. Beyond being academically prepared, going to college requires that several steps be taken in order to be considered for acceptance. This, of course, gets more complicated if you want to apply to several colleges. Even more complicated if these colleges are in different states or are private institutions.

Back in the mid-1970s, the Common Application was created by 15 institutions to try and simplify the admissions process. The logic is simple: why not have just one application that can be directed at a particular institution (or institutions) so that students (and parents) have but one form to submit.

Today, with our computer and web-based electronics, this should even be simpler. In fact, over 400 colleges, including Yale and Princeton, subscribe to “The Common App” (www.commonapp.org). This seems wonderful enough, but there are two significant issues.

First, I ask why only 456 colleges? In the US, there are over 1,800 private, four-year not-for-profit and 600 public, four-year not-for-profit institutions. In addition, there are approximately 1,100 community colleges and 600 private, two-year institutions.

My math says over 4,000 public and private two- and four-year institutions in the United States. Why are only 11 percent of colleges and universities in the Title IV system using a college app? This needs to change.

Second, of the 456 colleges that subscribe to the common app, why do so many require additional application information, and sometimes complete applications, in addition? It seems that many of the colleges that use the common app put many other admissions requirements on students that the common app becomes of little utility. They end up submitting a separate application anyway for several of these institutions.

We’ve seen this before. After the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Congress forced the development of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) because many members did not like The College Board having a monopoly on the aid form (The College Board’s PROFILE). But even today, whereas a student must complete a FAFSA for financial aid, many colleges, most of which are private, require the PROFILE as well because it asks for additional asset information in order to calculate need. So, even though the free form is universal, many students have to complete a second aid form. This seems to be the case with the Common App, as well.

Quite simply, if we really want to simplify this chaotic system of higher education, one simple (partial) solution is for the federal government (and yes, the Canadian system should do the same!) to require all Title IV institutions (i.e., institutions that qualify for federal financial aid) to use one singular admissions form. I truly can’t believe the requirements for admission should be different for our institutions. In addition, the current Common App allows for additional questions by institutions (as long as they aren’t redundant). So why not?

This is an easy thing to do. Congress, simply create a new federal policy that requires institutions to use the Common App by 2013-14 or lose their Title IV status. You did it for financial aid (as imperfect as the FAFSA is). Do it for admissions.

Sometimes change is easy. It just takes political will to do it.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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One Response to The “Not-So-Common” Common App

  1. David Baker says:

    I enjoyed reading your post. I’m part of a non-profit organization (casrai.org) trying to solve this problem within the research community. The problem of information sharing and reuse is compounded in our community because research teams have to face this duplication repeatedly and for multiple projects.

    The low adoption of CommonApp may not point to a resistance to harmonization in your community. It may instead point to a resistance to an unsustainable model of harmonization. You have options when you try to harmonize a community of organizations around information reuse and sharing. One option is to try to get everyone to drop their local systems and move to a single hosted system (I think this is the CommonApp model but I am not familiar with that tool). This ‘web-portal’ option was a popular option in the early days of the web. Another option is to adopt common information exchange standards and let organizations keep their operational latitude in systems choices. This is the model other industries have adopted and the one we have chosen.

    In our experience participation increased rapidly when we removed the technical, administrative and political overhead that comes with an entire community adopting a single piece of hosted software. There are precedents in other industries. For example, when retail outlets want to share and reuse inventory data on the same products they don’t all share a website. Instead they agree on data standards for SKU numbers so that *any* software can manage the information.

    A student applying to multiple colleges should be able to reuse the same data for submission to any college that has adopted the community standards. You can reach this goal without forcing every organization to use a single centralized tool.

    I point you to a 2 minute video that explains how the research community is trying to tackle this problem in a sustainable and cooperative way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gmx7U9-i3Gg

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