Oct 26, 2013

Common App finally admits to ‘isolated’ server problems

Hampshire College joined the UCA earlier this week.

In a notice posted on Facebook late last night, officials from the Common Application finally confessed that for some time, the troubled system has suffered from isolated “server” problems.

“The slow performance some of you encountered earlier this evening occurred as we were rolling out corrections to the system,” explained the Common Application on Facebook. “The slowness was isolated to certain servers, which is why some users experienced a problem and others did not.”

This statement supports speculation among colleges and counselors that students in different regions of the country have been experiencing differing levels of difficulty with the system.

“I see first hand every hour all the major problems that still persist with the Common App regarding student logins, .pdf generation and payment,” said Cristiana Quinn, an independent college counselor located in New England, where many complaints have been centered.  “It is true that some students are able to submit apps, especially during morning hours when the system seems to perform better…by 5 p.m. eastern time, the system seems to slow a near halt for generating .pdf’s.”

And as late as yesterday, problems also seemed clustered in the Pacific Northwest.  “Today the Common Application kicked one of my students out for a record of 18 times in 30 minutes,” said Eric Delehoy, an Oregon-based independent counselor and president-elect of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).  “Yesterday, only 3 of 5 students were able to submit their applications because of Common Application issues and errors.”

These complaints support a pattern of issues involving logins, slow uploads, and payments.

So far, the Washington metropolitan area has been largely immune, since the Columbus Day crash, to some of the Common App’s more troublesome quirks associated with traffic overloads. 

This may relate to the fact that the Hobsons “Common Application Group” works out of offices located in Arlington, Virginia.

While not accepting blame for the faulty software, Hobsons is the technology subcontractor largely responsible for its development and appears to be working feverishly to address its failures.

“Hobsons, along with the Common Application technical team and other partners, is addressing the challenges that have occurred,” commented Rachel DiCaro Metscher, communications and public relations director, in an email responding to questions concerning the Common App.  “We have been have been and will continue to work closely with the Common Application to resolve issues and improve the experience for all users.”

In a separate statement yesterday from Scott Anderson, senior director of policy, the Common App wants it  known that things are going well from their perspective.

“…we remain confident in and excited about the potential of the new system,” Anderson reports.  “As of Thursday, it had processed over 350,000 applications, a 28% increase over the prior year…we are pleased with the performance we have seen.”

Note that the Common Application ensured a significant increase in applications this year by signing up Purdue, which received somewhere in the ballpark of 31,000 applications last year, as well as Georgia Tech (14,645 applications last year), Temple University (18,731), University of Cincinnati (17,104), University of Colorado Boulder (20,506), Virginia Commonwealth University (15,750), as well as 26 other new members.

While not all of these colleges are exclusive members of the Common Application, it’s clear that some statistics related to applications submitted through the system need closer examination.

And despite the glowing self-assessment, colleges are growing increasingly impatient with problems on their end of the system, as Washington University in St. Louis is the latest in a series of institutions to bring on the Universal College Application as a reliable back-up.

On the college side, a listserv privately maintained by the Common Application for members has been characterized by one college-based staff person as, “…a never-ending stream of issues that people are encountering [in the processing of applications].”

And while genuinely concerned about applicant stress, colleges fearfully watch their numbers and extend deadlines in response to uncertainties in the system.  

In the meantime, school-based staff continue to experience issues with recommendation and transcript submission, Early Decision forms, FERPA waivers, and a fee waiver system that has yet to be fully implemented—nearly three months after the new application was launched.

In addition, the connection to Naviance, a Hobsons product marketed to high schools partly for use in the transmission of supporting documents to colleges, remains incomplete and unpredictable. 

And each arm of the Hobsons corporate community points to the other when it comes time to assess blame.
“…Naviance accounts are not accurately reflecting form status,” according to Anderson. “This is a known issue on their end that they are working to resolve.”

And instead of temporarily closing down the system in the middle of the night for “maintenance” or repairs, developers anxious to implement fixes before the weekend, intrude on the system during times when high school students may be expected to be working on their applications—like yesterday evening.

All in all, the premature launch of the new Common Application has cost users thousands and thousands of dollars in lost time and resources, none of which has been acknowledged in the way of an apology or recognition of responsibility on the part of Hobsons or the Common App.

And by now, many are wondering why the Common Application Board of Directors approved the decision to go forward on August 1, rather than delay implementation in favor of a more thoroughly tested system in 2014.

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