Apr 10, 2014

Common App Board acknowledges mistakes in CA4 rollout

In a report emailed yesterday to member colleges and universities, the Common Application Board of Directors for the first time publicly acknowledged that mistakes were made during the rollout of the new application (CA4) last year.  Drawing on findings from a review conducted by Censeo, a DC based management consulting firm, the Board agreed that the project plan for CA4 was “not realistic in scope” and did not “provide sufficient time for member testing.”

Last December, the Board contracted with Censeo to evaluate and make recommendations for the governance and operations as well as the technology and technical support capabilities of the Common App. Surveys were emailed to all 517 member institutions as well as to 50,000 school counselors.  Censeo also conducted interviews with Common App staff, Hobsons staff, admissions officers, and college-based technical staff. Neither student applicants nor independent college advisers were included in the review.

Although the survey failed to probe deeply into problems experienced by students and counselors, it did surface a series of issues in the management and implementation of the CA4 system.  Findings from the survey conducted by Censeo touched on five key areas:

  • Mission.  The Common Application mission is not consistently understood and shared across the membership.  In fact, the Common App board has historically “struggled” with the question of whether the Common App is a membership organization or a technology vendor.
  • Governance.  Decision-making processes, which depended on a committee of the Board, the membership, and technical staff, have not kept up with the growing complexity of the organization.
  • CA4.  While the system was found to be basically sound, there were technical problems caused by inconsistent and/or insufficient testing.
  • Management.  The project plan for CA 4 was unrealistic in scope and timing and failed to adequately include member feedback.
  • Support.  The supervision and oversight of various “business operations” have failed to grow with the complexity of the organization.

Interestingly, Censeo used the number of “submitted tickets” as a measure of student and counselor problems with the CA4.  As a result, Censeo reported that “member perception of technical issues among students and counselors was worse than the reality.”

But whatever the “perception” might have been among front-end users of the CA4, Censeo concedes that complaints about communication and processes as well as executive and Board leadership were “reasonable under the circumstances.”

Since contracting with Censeo, the Common App Board has removed the executive director and begun the process of becoming more transparent and collaborative.  But to be successful, the Board will have to make major changes in the culture of the organization, which has tended toward secrecy sometimes bordering on hostility.   And the conversation needs to be opened to a broader constituency.

In conveying Censeo’s findings to the membership, the Board underscored its commitment to strengthening management and focusing on “member driven” changes that benefit a broad range of  institutions.  While steering clear of too many specifics, the Common App Board wants the emphasis to be on the future of what they hope will be a growing and even more powerful player in the admissions industry.

Tomorrow:  Going forward.

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