Oct 5, 2015

NACAC forum on Coalition plans for new application reveals little new

UMD plans to be an "exclusive" user of the Coalition app
SAN DIEGO—The much-anticipated NACAC session on the new Coalition Application was
distinguished mostly by the size of the audience—well over 500 conference-goers—attracted to what had originally promised to be a showdown between a panel of well-intentioned coalition members and a room full of hostile counselors determined to be heard on a project they consider unnecessary and wrong-headed.

But the showdown never came. In fact, the advertised “early glimpse of the features of the Coalition Application” never materialized nor did any discussion ensue on how the application hoped “to recast the nature of applying to college in the 21st century.” 

With no information beyond what was released in a slick media rollout earlier in the week, the panel, including Barbara Gill, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Maryland, John Latting, assistant vice provost for undergraduate enrollment and dean of admission at Emory University, and Audrey Smith, vice president for enrollment at Smith College, provided no new insights on the application or accompanying tools the Coalition proposes to add to the package being developed by CollegeNET. What was presented stuck to a fairly narrow script supported by earnest opinions on the value of reaching out to the community of underserved students and the need to reduce stress in the application process. 

“We are new and don’t yet have all the answers,” explained Ms. Smith.  “We do hope that everyone does agree there is room for improvement in the college admissions process.”

There was a good deal of talk about “leveling the playing field,” but not much in the way of specifics as to how the Coalition Application proposes to get the job done.  And while conceding that members of the audience might need more information and “change is hard,” the panel wanted to make clear that “the status quo can and must change.”

Neither the chairman of the coalition board of directors, James Nondorf, of the University of Chicago, nor any representatives from CollegeNET came forward to help the panel fill in blanks or provide specifics as to how the new application could possibly accomplish any of the higher goals outlined in prepared statements to the press. 

In fact, if any of the other 80 coalition members or the counselors already invited to advise them were in the audience, they certainly didn’t make themselves known or otherwise address their reasons for getting involved in the project.  They left it to three assigned flak catchers who dealt gracefully with an audience clearly loaded for bear.

And here is what we learned.  The Coalition formed two years ago out of dissatisfaction with the performance and heavy-handedness of the then Common Application leadership. 

According to John Latting, “We came to realize that we were literally spectators when it came to our own applications.”

Committees were created and a request for proposals (RFP) was issued.  A year ago, the Coalition selected CollegeNET to design and develop a platform including a suite of three tools:

  • A virtual college “locker” described as a working repository of information—written work, diary entries, essays, photos, videos—collected from as early as ninth grade (note that the terminology changed this week from “portfolio,” which was considered to come with lots of unnecessary baggage, to “locker”).
  • A collaboration platform through which students would be encouraged to share information deposited in the locker with others—community mentors, teachers, counselors, and college admissions offices.
  • A personalized application portal containing common elements shared across all coalition members as well as institution-specific questions.

An unnamed group of over 40 counselors (allegedly asked to sign confidentiality agreements) was invited to advise the Coalition and will be tasked with testing the locker. In addition, focus groups of students will be asked to comment on its functionality in time for a January locker release.  The application portal will follow in time to accept applications over the summer of 2016.

In response to clear audience displeasure with elements of what they were hearing, lots of assurances were given as to assessments and opportunities to improve the process.  “If we can help together to lower the flame a bit, we will have been successful,” suggested Ms. Gill.

So what was missing from the presentation?  First, although a software demonstration was clearly available to be shared, nothing was presented.  CollegeNET declined to be on the agenda, and the panel didn’t have so much as a single PowerPoint slide to present.  Details on the mechanics of getting the application off the ground were in short supply.  No information about the RFP process or specifications was provided.  Nothing was discussed about the process of selecting a vendor, especially one that had a law suit pending against the Common App, at the time. In other words, no suggestion was put forth that advice had been sought beyond a tight corps of admissions deans on the practical aspects of designing an application proposing to “revolutionize” the industry.

And now two years down the road, the group has expanded from an assortment of COFHE members to an interesting mix including existing CollegeNET customers hoping to transition to an upgraded application and a package of application-related tools.  An added bonus would be the perceived advantage of tagging along with the entire Ivy League and a handful of big-names on the U.S. News roster of “best” colleges.  

At some point, the Coalition rebranded itself by stealing a page from the Common App’s mission statement passed at last year’s NACAC conference and chose to focus its marketing on college “access” thereby avoiding being viewed as simply a competing application product.  All this was accomplished with a fair amount of secrecy until colleges approached as potential members began leaking bits and pieces of the plans.

“I’m convinced that the membership of the Coalition is going to be more transparent,” assured Dean Latting.  If the months leading out to rollout are indication, the process to-date has been anything but transparent or inclusive.

With time remaining after the presentation, the panel opened the floor to questions and members of the audience got right to the point. Counselors were concerned about getting “tigered” by ninth grade parents ready to enroll their honor students and begin loading their lockers—immediately. Some wondered aloud how the Coalition Application could hope to serve the public interest as structured or reach those students left out of the current process. Others thought the Coalition should be seeking more specialized advice and consultation from experts on adolescent behavior.  Still others could see the potential for a greater tilt of the playing field in favor of students already benefiting from strong counseling opportunities both within and outside of the school.

“I can’t disagree with you that that’s a risk,” responded Dean Latting.

Eli Clarke, director of college counseling at Gonzaga College High School, in Washington, D.C., wanted to know who would have access to the locker, and worried that the new application threatened to place undue “focus on preparing for college and not on the high school experience.”  

Trying to puzzle out how the model as described might work to serve disadvantaged students, another counselor suggested, "How about restricting access to this application to only low-income students?"

 After a brief silence, Dean Latting responded, "You floored us with that."

Thus the panel escaped the session with only a few bumps and bruises—not enough to change commitment to the plan.  The audience was provided a polite forum for airing skepticism and launching a few criticisms. And the other 80 signatories to the Coalition along with those most responsible for getting it off the ground quietly left the room.  

The rest of us came away with our reservations confirmed, but knowing very little more than what we knew to begin with.  The Coalition invites discourse on its website, and certainly those with concerns should voice them.  

And the Coalition promises their committee of counselors will test and provide feedback on the package of application tools.  Hopefully this group represents a range of high schools as well as outside counseling groups, particularly those working with disadvantaged populations. It would be nice if they were named. It would also be nice to see some counselors—school based and independent—on the coalition board of directors.

But beyond that, it seems difficult to believe that Coalition members will suddenly jump off the bandwagon and implementation will be delayed yet another year.  There’s simply been too much invested and no evidence that any minds were changed by challenges coming from counselors as well as from institutions not invited to the party.  

At the end of the day, there will most likely be a new application added to the mix next year. How the other tools are used and whether they represent anything revolutionary remains to be seen.  But judging from initial reactions, the Coalition needs to do more to open its tent and be as “transparent” as promised. Otherwise, the plan will be reduced to yet another arrow in the quiver of marketing devices employed by a select group of colleges.

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