May 30, 2014

The Common App probes pricing models for the future

At the member conference held in Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks ago, Paul Mott, interim CEO of the Common Application, put forth a timeline for gathering input and possibly making changes to key areas of Common App management and technology.

As part of his plan to address various operational and what appear to be political issues within the membership, Mott emailed a follow-up survey this week designed to build on data gathered from an initial questionnaire circulated last December by Censeo, a management consulting firm hired by the CA Board of Directors.

In this latest online survey, the Common Application zeroes in on  organization—vision, governance and membership structure; specific features of the online application that are either offered currently or may be offered in the future; and pricing as it affects service levels and product features.

And the questions are very interesting insofar as they reflect member concerns and the need to reevaluate technology—specifically the desirability of customization and glitzy “smart” technology—that was introduced as new to the CA4 and unique in the industry.

The survey also suggests that the Common App may be looking to expand its sphere of influence.

For example, while seeking reaffirmation of the Common App mission statement to “promote equity, access, and integrity in the application process,” the survey probes whether the Common App should have a “broader role in helping students evaluate college choices” or in “guiding students through the application process earlier on during high school.”  

And bowing to institutional interest in data collection, the Common App also wants to know if members would like to see a “broader role in providing data to universities to help them reach their target audience more effectively” and presumably put the Common App more squarely in the lucrative business of enrollment management.

But getting back to concerns specifically expressed by applicants, recommenders, and independent counselors, the survey asks members to evaluate various service upgrades including the ability to have applicants upload content of other file types (e.g. videos, etc.) within the Common Application and the provision of chat support for applicants and recommenders as well as for members.  There is also the suggestion of an application system for transfer applicants with “comparable functionality and quality” to what is being made available for first-year applicants.

It all comes at a price, and the Common App wants to know if institutions would be willing to pay for these upgrades some of which can get expensive.

To get an idea of how valuable uploads, dynamic questions, chat support, and other technical services might be, the Common App asked members to consider various pricing models: 

  • The price per app should be dependent on whether a member is exclusive or not (current model)
  • The price per app should be proportional to the level of service required by each member
  • The price per app should be dependent on application volume
  • The price per app should be proportional to the complexity of each member screen
  • The Common Application should develop different technology options to meet the different needs of its diverse member base, and members should pay different prices depending on the option selected
  • The price per app should be proportional to the price each member charges its applicants
  • The price per app should be a flat fee for a basic application, and then each member can pay for additional features
  • Every member should be charged the same price per app
  • Members should pay an annual fixed fee instead of paying per app

In a final, optional section of the survey, members were asked to make “forced” choices between application products having different attributes—service levels, features, and price points.  The Rolls Royce option came with a fixed annual fee of $5,550 plus a $7.00 per application additional charge, while the least expensive—no bells or whistles—set an annual fee of $500 plus a $3.50 per application additional charge.

And of all the areas in which the Common App could be improved for applicants, only the possibility of live chat support and content uploads are under immediate consideration.  

But like any bottom line-oriented industry, it’s less about customer satisfaction among “end users” and more about what the market will bear.  

So far at least, the student applicant is lost in this conversation.

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