May 4, 2015

NACAC’s problem with ‘the question’ extends far beyond the Common Application

Roanoke College uses the Common App to ask "the question."
In an opinion piece he penned for the National Association for College Admission (NACAC) Bulletin, Todd Rinehart, associate chancellor for enrollment and director of admission at the University of Denver and chair of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee, took a strong stand against the practice of asking candidates where else they applied to college.  

“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.”

In his column, Rinehart singled out the Common Application for taking a hands-off position on the question and suggested that “NACAC members should encourage The Common Application leadership to reconsider this topic—removing the question completely.”

Paul Mott, interim CEO of the Common App, responded forcefully that it wasn’t his responsibility to enforce a rule that’s loosely stated, at best, and seemingly seldom policed as part of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP).

“To me, this is an inappropriate question to put to college applicants, but I am here to serve my Members and any personal opinion I may have is not especially relevant.”

His membership appears to agree.  In fact, no fewer than 63 member colleges and universities ask where else students are applying either within member questions or on the independent writing supplement.  Although the question is almost always “optional,” it still is a routine part of the Common App made available by over ten percent of the membership.

But it turns out that the problem NACAC has with ‘the question’ extends far beyond what is allowable on the Common Application.

In a sample of Common App member colleges and universities, an additional 43 members ask the question on “alternate” applications, including paper and/or other electronic forms accessed on individual college websites.

This brings the total number of members wanting insight into a student’s college list to 106 or over 18 percent of the Common App membership.  And that’s probably a low estimate as many “password protected” applications are difficult to access for review.

But NACAC’s problems don’t end there.  A significant number of these applications crossed the ethical boundaries drawn by the SPGP and made the question appear required.  In other words, the question was not specifically marked as “optional.”  Some also asked applicants to “rank” their choices by listing colleges in order of preference.

More than one NACAC member asked if they were the applicant’s “first choice.”  Other schools asked for a ranking of the first three colleges on the applicant’s list—first, second, and third.

And these are clear violations of NACAC’s SPGP which states that all postsecondary members will “not require or ask candidates or the secondary schools to indicate the order of the candidates’ college or university preferences, except under Early Decision.”

But the issue appears to extend far beyond the Common Application.  A simple scan of NACAC institutional members from Virginia found that out of 34 institutional members, at least 8 colleges that do NOT use the Common Application ask students where else they are applying.  Roanoke and Sweet Briar ask the question on the Common Application, and an additional four Common App members ask it on paper or other electronic versions of their applications.  

This means that at least 14 out of 34 NACAC members in Virginia, or over 40 percent, ask students where else they are applying on one or more of the applications used to assess candidates for admission.

While Rinehart’s words produced a significant hue and cry from NACAC’s college counseling community supporting his stand against the question, institutional members were largely quiet or at least didn’t publicly respond to the challenge to remove these kinds of questions from applications.

And so far, of the three major associations of college counselors, only the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS) has come forward with a stand against the question.  The other two, IECA and HECA, have not expressed official views or recommended possible changes in the SPGP, to which both organizations require their members to adhere.

As the chairman of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee, Rinehart has the opportunity to have the issue formally addressed by NACAC’s members—both counseling and institutional.  But if past history is any predictor, don’t expect much in the way of change.  In the age of big data and enrollment forecasting, this particular piece of information may be too important to remove from the process for many NACAC members.

For an updated version of the list of Common App members asking ‘the question,’ email

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