Nov 5, 2015

The Coalition acknowledges false steps while pressing toward 2016 launch

The Coalition session at College Board Forum 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C.   It would have been hard to leave yesterday’s session on the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, at the College Board Forum 2015 and not be convinced that over 80 very committed colleges and universities are set to launch their controversial new application platform during the summer of 2016. Whether it will go forward with the support of the counseling community remains another matter.

As a large crowd gathered in a room way too small for the level of interest, it became clear that this session was “the” place to be for the most visible if not powerful deans and vice presidents of enrollment management in the industry, most of whom gravitated to the front of the room.  But despite collegial backslaps and friendly hugs, there was no mistaking the tension among members of the audience questioning the need for and appropriateness of the Coalition’s approach to introducing a new set of “tools’ into the already chaotic college application process.

Acknowledging false steps in the original rollout of the Coalition plan at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) conference in San Diego, Zina Evans, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Florida, opened the session with a promise to “articulate a broad vision” and provide more in depth explanations missing from the earlier introduction. 

“There are a lot of questions and a critical need for information,” said Dr. Evans.

Reading from a script familiar to anyone following the issue, Evans assured the audience that the Coalition believes “the college admissions process needs improvement” but does not believe they have “a corner on access” or “all the answers.” While much progress has been made developing the tools, she conceded they are works in progress subject to refinement and change. In fact, there were several references over the course of the session to years two and three and subsequent “iterations” of the technology, which Evans described as three distinct “stand alone” parts—the virtual locker, the collaboration platform, and the application portal.

Virtual Locker
According to Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, there has been a great deal of “misinformation about the use of the virtual locker,” an element of the technology in which students would be invited to store a variety of contents throughout their high school careers. He described the locker as a free tool “fully owned and controlled by the student” who could choose to share or not share its contents.  

Clarifying Coalition intent, Quinlan made a distinction between time in high school to prepare for college and time to apply. The locker would be viewed as a lead-up to the application process and entirely distinct from the application portal. The Coalition hopes to structure use of the locker for those students benefiting from early intervention, particularly those taking advantage of mentorship opportunities provided by counselors, community-based organizations (CBOs), and teachers. 

In terms of the application process, universities would be free to determine how locker contents could be used or transferred to individual applications. He suggested that in lieu of writing Yale’s second 500-word essay, a student might be able to upload a graded paper, a science fair abstract, or a video.
Will this benefit “well-resourced” students and result in “professionally curated” lockers filled with content meant to impress admissions staff?  Perhaps. But even if it did, Dean Quinlan pointed out that most colleges simply don’t have the time or interest in reviewing this kind of information.

But Quinlan did think that in some cases, the material could be helpful in advising students once they actually reach campus.  He concluded it will be a resource “offered to all and used by some.”

Collaboration Platform
Seth Allen, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College, described the application’s collaboration platform as a “gateway to helping” some students “prepare the skills” to go to college.  He described the structure of the platform as designed to capitalize on “something students like to do anyway”—post content on social media. Only in this case, they would be encouraged to invite mentors—counselors, teachers, CBOs—to comment and provide feedback on that content.

In addition to promoting early engagement in the application process for those who could benefit, Allen suggested students would be able to practice networking skills, learn how to ask for help, as well as identify and find mentors.  Critical thinking skills would be improved as they discovered that “not all advice is good advice.” Through collaboration, students would hopefully “adopt a stronger way of presenting themselves when it comes time to apply.”

Application Portal
Vern Granger, director of enrollment services at The Ohio State University, characterized this tool as “a contemporary, mobile-friendly interactive application, intuitive to the 21st century audience.” It’s meant to be an “alternate” application that will hopefully stabilize an industry that didn’t fully understand its vulnerability until the Common Application crashed two years ago.

“The application will not start in the 9th grade,” said Granger. “And it is not meant to replace existing applications.”

Set to launch in July 2016, the application will be designed to capture common elements of data but will also allow members to better control content and tailor their applications to meet institutional needs.  He noted that students would not be required to use the locker to use the application. It is a separate and distinct element of the technology.

During a question and answer session, members of the Coalition panel repeatedly stressed that specifications were still evolving and many questions remained. As a group, the Coalition “intentionally” delayed implementation of the locker until April 2016 pending beta testing and feedback from a group of 47 counselors representing 24 public and 20 private high schools (five international) as well as three CBOs. The application portal will undergo a similar review starting the first of next year.  According to Dr. Evans, “The process is moving forward deliberately and collaboratively.”  Dean Allen added, “We built the motherboard and now we need to see how it will work.”

In response to questions about how the Coalition will assure the tools will be just for under-resourced kids, Dr. Evans responded, “This is not exclusively for any one population,” adding the locker will be a tool that will allow “all students to differentiate themselves.”  And to answer questions about limitations in Coalition membership, the panel announced the formation of a committee chaired by Dr. Evans and William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College, which will be charged with looking at widening the membership in year two of the Coalition.

Will these tools reach the target population, engage low-income, minority and first-generation students, or simplify the process in meaningful ways?  And if successful, will Coalition members unconditionally commit to supporting these students financially?

The jury is still out. And many questions remain as to how the development of the new technology is being funded and what kind of a financial obligation the Coalition has already incurred with CollegeNET—the software developer. But one thing is for certain, the train is gaining momentum and counselors are becoming increasingly convinced the platform will launch—with or without their initial support.

“It’s going to happen,” said one counselor attending the session.  “I feel a little better about their intentions, but I still have lots of questions.”

And in that, she was not alone.  

“This isn’t an ‘If you build it, they will come,’” explained Dr. Evans. “This is going to take a lot of work on our part to get the word out.” She added that she sees this is an opportunity to “build something we can be proud of.”

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