Sep 26, 2014

The Common App will no longer require member colleges to conduct ‘holistic’ reviews of applicants

A member of the Big Ten, Purdue joined the Common App last year.
Perhaps the biggest news to come out of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) annual conference held last week in Indianapolis was the announcement that the Common Application will no longer require member institutions to conduct “holistic” reviews of applicants.

The new policy, which goes into effect for 2015-16, reflects a basic change in mission statement and will allow colleges that do not require an essay and/or recommendations to join the 549-member organization.

The announcement was made by Paul Mott, the Common App’s interim chief executive officer, during a members-only meeting early in the week.   The change in mission statement had been previously voted on by the Common App’s board of directors, but had not been communicated to the membership prior to the meeting.

The current 77-word mission statement limits membership to “colleges and universities that promote access by evaluating students using a holistic selection process.”  This was defined as requiring
  • an untimed writing sample of at least 250 words, and
  • at least one recommendation from a school-based counselor or academic teacher.
The new mission statement has been streamlined to read simply

 “The Common Application is a not-for-profit member organization committed to the pursuit of access, equity, and integrity in the college application process.”

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mott justified the change in terms of feedback he and the board received from admissions officers and counselors.  “Our membership has said unequivocally that we must do more to increase access and this is reducing these barriers to access and pointless friction.” 

Mott considers removing the writing and recommendation requirements a step toward increasing access.

But others think the change in mission statement is a business strategy designed to appeal to less selective or larger institutions.

During a later session open to all NACAC members, Mott indicated that with the support of Censeo, a DC-based management consulting firm, the Common App took “a good hard look” at the failures of the previous year and is now building “a business plan for moving forward” which entails constructing “an efficient if not elegant online application system.”

And there’s no doubt that by loosening membership requirements, the Common App will be able to attract institutions less concerned with an applicant’s “story” as with their numbers.”

While the Common App has been successful in bringing in some big fish like Purdue, Michigan, and Virginia Commonwealth University, the membership seemed to stall a bit as a result of glitches in the system last year and at least one large member--Towson University--left.

As these technical issues have largely been addressed, the management team can once again turn attention to marketing and seems to be moving aggressively in that direction by making it much easier for colleges to join the association.

And some members agree that the new mission statement was more of a business decision than a change in philosophy.

“It didn’t surprise me.  Colleges are doing so many different things to meet their enrollment goals…it seems like a simple business decision to keep [the Common Application] as least complicated as possible to use their service,” said one east coast admissions dean.  “[My] university will still read essays and letters of recommendation and use these in our decision-making.”

Jon Boeckenstedt, of DePaul University agrees.  “I’m generally supportive of letting colleges determine the best way to evaluate applicants.”

An even more practical response suggested, “We see Common App as a servicing center/processing center only.”

This brings us back the issue of “mission.”  As the Common App works hard to attract new and varied colleges and universities both in the U.S. and abroad, the ability to micromanage their various application processes and enrollment management priorities would be nothing less than impossible.

The Common App board and management recognize this reality, and they are making adjustments to position the organization for the future.

Those colleges having a problem opening the Common App to members not sharing the founding philosophy of “holistic review” are free to go elsewhere or they can form their own collaboratives based on commonalities such as size, geography or mission.  

But as the Common App evolves under its new leadership away from the vision of the original 15 member institutions 40 years ago, what we’re really talking about is not so much a common application as a common application software, which stands it in direct competition with other for-profit products with missions not too different from the revised Common App statement.

And as the Common App continues to move in this direction, the related issues of market share, pricing policies and nonprofit status may be called more into question by those same competitors.

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