Apr 27, 2015

The Common App tangles with NACAC over unpopular question

Last year, Davidson asked where else a student applied.

Last week, Paul Mott, interim CEO of the Common Application, responded to an issue brewing on a “Member-Tech” message board set aside for technical questions about the application and its content.  

Specifically, Mott reinforced what had been a long-time policy of the Common App allowing members to ask applicants to provide a list of other institutions to which they are applying, in spite of wording in the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP) appearing to discourage such questions from being asked by member colleges and universities.

According to Mott, an inquiry was raised about an apparent “contradiction between practice and policy,” which allowed if not encouraged Common App members to pry into what should be a confidential piece of information—the applicant’s college list.

On page 15, of the SPGP, to which the Common App has bound itself, NACAC clearly states that “postsecondary institutions should refrain from asking applicants to list the universities to which they are applying.”

And Mott wanted to make the Common App’s position on the matter clear.

“…it is perfectly fair to ask why the Common App does not insist that all Members live true to the aspirational dimension of the issue,” said Mott in message to the Common App membership.  “There are more than a few folks in our office and many, I imagine, among our Membership that believe we should do just that.”

Mott goes on to justify the Common App position allowing the question by reminding members of their desire for wide discretion in the determination of what information best suits the individual needs of member colleges and universities.

“If there is one thing I have learned in my one year on the job, it is that Members want the Common App, as I put it in a November 3 communication to CAOs [Chief Administrative Officers], ‘to butt out of the business of determining what information you collect on your application and, for that matter, how you make your business decisions.’”

This is hardly a new issue.  But in view of the controversy recently inspired by a similar information request on the FAFSA, the question has suddenly come back to the forefront of matters for the Common App to consider at its upcoming conference in Baltimore.

And the issue isn’t being called into question by one of the Common App’s rivals or persistent critics.  It’s coming from relatively close to home, as Todd Rinehart, associate vice chancellor and director of admission at the University of Denver and chair of the NACAC Admissions Practices Committee, took the matter public last week using the NACAC Bulletin to air his concerns.

"This may seem like a harmless question, but NACAC members have long supported the notion that students should be able to apply to colleges without being probed on the other schools they are considering," writes Rinehart.  "The philosophy has always been that the college application process is stressful and complex enough, and we don’t need to add yet another layer to the tangled web by posing a question that puts the student in an awkward position. Does the student need to strategize a response to enhance their chance for admission, or should they flat-out lie?"

Over 50 Common Application members, or close to 10 percent of the current membership, ask for a list of other colleges to which the student is applying.  In other words, this is no small problem for the Common App, which is seeking to expand membership among colleges and universities traditionally reluctant to release control over application content.  

In view of the extremely close connection between NACAC and the Common App, involving office locations, financial contributions and the requirement that all Common App members be members of NACAC and uphold the SPGP, it’s going to be very difficult to completely ignore the insistent tone coming from NACAC’s Admissions Practices Committee.

And Paul Mott has already put the issue front and center for the Common App’s annual conference next week.

Wednesday:  Possible solutions to the Common App’s dilemma?

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