Oct 29, 2010

Has the Common Application Grown Too Powerful?

For reasons not immediately evident, the Common Application requires that supporting documents (secondary school reports, transcripts, and recommendations) submitted electronically to Common App member colleges go through the Naviance/Family Connection system.
The process is puzzling except that both Naviance and the Common App have one very strong connection through Hobsons—a for profit corporation specializing in “higher education marketing, including enrollment marketing and branding campaigns.” Hobsons also owns College Confidential, one of the most popular college chat communities on the web.

As an increasing number of high schools have begun to use the Common App’s online service, questions have surfaced about behind-the-scenes corporate relationships fueling the system. Specifically, there is concern about the Hobsons/Naviance role in controlling document flow to colleges, particularly when it works against applicants' best interests by refusing to cooperate with other application providers.

Defending the arrangement, the Common App organization recently issued a statement from executive director Rob Killion, “The copyrighted Common Application and associated forms are ‘of a piece,’ the result of 35 years of research, work, and evolution, and meant to be used together as part of a particular kind of admission process that our Association advocates.”

He adds in an interview with Eric Hoover, of the Chronicle of Higher Education, “If a student wants to pursue an alternative path, that’s their prerogative, but I’m not sure why we, for free, should have to subsidize someone else’s system.”

Over the past week, cracks in the system started appearing as school-based counselors voiced concerns in online forums about the inefficiency and flawed nature of the process. One local school counselor complained, “There are certainly philosophical issues here but there are also practical, logistical ones which are difficult to manage.”

To add to the controversy, Naviance is having difficulty dealing with an unexpectedly large volume of documents filed through the Common Application. Executives from Naviance issued pleas for patience from colleges and the counseling community forced to use their software for both Early Action and Early Decision applications due at Common App member schools in coming days.

According to Naviance CEO Stephen M. Smith, “…we have experienced several issues related to Naviance eDocs during the past three weeks that have impacted system performance and availability.” He explains, “…we significantly underestimated how many forms each school would send….usage has increased more than 400%, exceeding both the planned capacity and the contingency we included.”

Locally, much of the problem has been avoided as counselors—even in schools with access to Naviance/Family Connections—continue to employ old fashioned snail mail techniques to submit documents needed to support college applications. Fairfax County, for one, has resisted electronic submissions of out of security concerns.

But the Hobsons/Naviance issue may raise much larger questions for the entire college admissions community.

We know from Common App newsletters that business has increased exponentially, and the bounty is evident in corporate ability to fund events such as the recent National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) National Conference in St. Louis at the “platinum” level.

We can also surmise that reluctance to work with organizations not tied to Hobsons suggests a possible desire to control the market and push other vendors out. The consumer gets lost in these competitions as efficiency is sacrificed in deference to corporate loyalty and profit—even among nonprofits.

When all is said and done, the goal should be to devise a straightforward and easy to understand system of college application submission. Above all, individual businesses must be discouraged from carving out corners of the market with the goal of controlling the process.

The ability to submit documents electronically should be a welcome time-saving device available to applicants and counselors without additional expense or headache. As an oversight agency, NACAC should encourage application models similar to that used by the Universal College Application, which freely transmits documents to member colleges regardless of what “brand” form the applicant ultimately choses to use.

In the end, the biggest players in the admissions industry are going to have to come to terms with the monster they’ve created and reflect on how self-interest and desire to be the most powerful has affected ability to provide a product designed to meet consumer needs.

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