Nov 9, 2015

For the Common App it’s business as usual

With only the briefest of references to possible competition from the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, the Common Application presentation at College Board Forum 2015, last Friday, suggested an organization confident of its place within the admissions industry and very much focused on going about business as usual. 

Absent headline-grabbing controversy or major complaints about performance, the Common App attracted a painfully small audience determined to ignore whatever shadow the Coalition proposes to cast over next year’s application process.  Staff took the opportunity to remind those in attendance of past accomplishments and to discuss innovations designed to help more students, especially those representing low-income first generation populations, gain access to the application process and ultimately attend college. 

Although not exactly standing still, the Common App evidently has no interest in altering course or making big technological changes to counter whatever competition may be in the pipeline for next year.  While tweaking various elements of the software, the organization is directing more attention to “invigorating” member engagement, enhancing student and counselor support, and strengthening “partnerships for access.”

With Paul Mott, the Common App’s chief executive officer (evidently no longer interim), looking on from the front row, Aba Blankson, director of communications, ran through the numbers:  out of 864,276 individual application accounts in 2014-15, 32 percent self-identified as first generation. Of them 73.9 percent came from public schools, 10.3 percent independent schools, 13.3 percent religiously-affiliated schools, 2.3 percent charter and less than one percent homeschooled. Together they submitted over 3.7 million applications to Common App member colleges and universities.

And the numbers show no signs of slowing down for 2015-16. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 1.1 million applications have been sent to more than 600 colleges worldwide since August.

Major changes for the Common App this year included dropping the membership-wide essay requirement, improving how the application communicates writing requirements, introducing an “in progress” print preview function, and breaking the counselor recommendation into two parts.  The Common App also launched a more attractive, if not more welcoming, website containing, among other improvements, a series of four-minute video tutorials on various aspects of the application.

In addition, the Common App is in the process of developing a mobile companion, called “Common App on Track.” While no one is suggesting the application should be completed on an iPhone, the new app will encourage students to check on the status of their applications and generally stay connected to the process.  Features will allow students to add and research colleges, track deadlines, and set reminders.

The Common App is also working on a “rollover” function whereby accounts opened this year may be continued into next year. Again, not all of the details have been finalized, but the Common App hopes this will help counselors enable students to get an earlier start on shared sections of the application.  Member questions and writing elements subject to change from one year to the next will not be included.

Possibly the biggest improvement this year was upgraded student, recommender, and member support capability. The online chat function was extended to include students, who since October have requested 1700 chats, averaging 11 minutes each. There is no appointment necessary. Students simply log-into their accounts, any time from 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., to request an online chat. Recommender chats are available from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.  And so far, 859 chats have been conducted averaging 15 minutes each.

In addition, to chatting online, recommenders may now also schedule calls with Common App staff manning the Help Desk. While the ability to speak with a live person has been something counselors have long wished for, it’s actually been the least popular of the Common App support options offered this year.

Beyond what has proven to be steady and reliable technology so far this year, the Common App is most proud of initiatives to reach out to low-income families.  In conjunction with the University of Virginia, the Common App started a pilot project designed to increase the number of high school students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Two weeks ago, emails introducing FAFSA, were generated from information provided on the Common App and were sent to about 200,000 students who asked for fee waivers or indicated they were prospective first-generation college students. The project will follow-up in January, sometime after FAFSA goes live. For those familiar with the term, “open rates” for the project (the percent of recipients actually looking at the mail) registered at an astonishing 50 percent for the first mailing.

The second partnership the Common App hopes will reach low- and moderate-income students in need of financial support to attend college is “Scholar Snap,” a new feature that helps Common App users receive information about scholarships.  By completing a question in the Profile section of the application, students opt-in to receive information directly from the scholarship service directing them to a website where they will create a Scholar Snapp profile, search for scholarships and complete applications online. Mott has described the service as the Common App of scholarships.

Without directly addressing its competition, the Common App made clear that it intends to get at the question of “access” by directly communicating opportunities to students who indicate a need and by making available a large base of scholarships beyond what is offered by Common App member colleges and universities. Employing an entirely different strategy, the Coalition proposes to offer more state-of-the-art software and engage students much earlier in the process while providing encouragement and support along the way.

As the Coalition struggles over technology issues and proposes to push back elements of the college application process to as early as ninth grade, the Common App will continue to tweak existing technology and do what it does best—connecting applicants to opportunities.

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