Apr 29, 2015

Possible solutions for the Common App dilemma

In 2014-15, the University of Cincinnati asked students where else they applied.
During 2014-15, over 50 Common Application members asked, in one form or other, for an applicant’s college list as part of the admissions process.

It is a practice that is highly discouraged, if not completely banned in some circumstances, by terms set forth by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPCP) or the ethics code by which all NACAC members and all Common App members agree to abide.

And yet, highly prestigious institutions such as Davidson College, Bentley University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Macalester College, University of San Diego, and Kalamazoo College—to name a few—persist in including the question among those used to assess a candidate’s qualifications for admission.

While the Common App has refused to back away from an institution’s right to ask, at least one member of NACAC's Admission Practices Committee, is demanding that NACAC use its relationship with the Common Application to revisit and further evaluate the practice.

“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,” said Todd Rinehart, associate chancellor for enrollment and director of admission at the University of Denver and chair of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee.

The family quarrel between NACAC and the Common App has some members of both organizations scratching their heads.

“We never use that information for admissions decisions,” said an admissions representative from a Midwestern Catholic university at a recent meeting of independent educational consultants. “It’s entirely optional and isn’t intended for anything but counseling purposes.”

Another admissions rep from one of the Colleges That Change Lives agrees, “I sometimes use it after a student is admitted as background information to help the student make a decision about our college versus other colleges on their list.”

But even when well-intentioned, the question of which other colleges are on the applicant’s list raises a level of uneasiness about the college’s need to know and often results in gaming about how many and which colleges to tell them about.

“Students are left to draw any number of conclusions when asked this on an admission application, and they should be placed in this awkward position,” added Rinehart, in a statement for the NACAC Bulletin.  “Enrollment management has become too much of a game of ‘feeding the beast,’ and we need to be careful not to lose focus on the students….We can do better.”

And so, Rinehart opened the discussion to a wider forum and proposed possible steps NACAC could take to reinforce the intent of the SPGP by asking the Common App to address the question with its membership:
  1. Remove the question.  Rinehart suggests NACAC members should encourage Common App leadership to revisit this topic with the intent of asking that the question be removed from any part of the application—optional or required. As a membership organization, the Common App answers only to its membership and not to the much broader universe of NACAC members.  If enough Common App members agree, however, that the question should be removed, then the administration and the board would be forced to address the matter.  As long as the relationship between NACAC and the Common App remains the same, NACAC members would have to agree to change the language in the SPGP to prohibit members from asking the question before demanding that the Common App make changes in its current policy.

  2. Provide cross-application data.  Similar to what the College Board produces annually for its members, the Common App could consider providing cross-application information to its members at the end of each application cycle.  Schools don’t need to have access to names, but they could easily see where students applied in addition to their particular institution. The intent would be to eliminate the need to ask the question for enrollment management purposes.  If it’s true that the list is only used to “counsel” students, however, then this solution doesn’t particularly work.

  3. Make the question clearly optional.  While not ideal, this option would ask the Common Application to ensure that members will not be allowed to require a response to the question.  Students would be allowed to leave the field blank and move on to the next question if they choose.  Since most institutions already mark the question as optional, this solution does little to advance the cause.  Adding the force of the SPGP behind the policy only provides marginal additional value.
To date, the only national organization representing the college counseling community taking a public position on this issue is the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS).  In 2013, the ACCIS went on record with a proposal to the Common Application Board that stated, “We advocate the elimination of any question on member schools’ supplements asking applicants to disclose other colleges or universities to which they have applied.”  

Other organizations have remained silent as the Common App and NACAC work with their individual memberships to reach consensus on a policy reflecting majority opinion, which hasn't proven to be so easy.

In a recent email to members, Paul Mott, interim CEO of the Common Application, suggested the matter is still open to discussion.  He proposed that this “individual issue” would be appropriate for consideration at the annual member conference to be held in Baltimore next week, along with the larger issue of “governance.”

“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.”

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