Jan 21, 2016

Common App continues to tweak new rollover plan

Last fall, the Common Application announced that Common App accounts created during 2015-2016 would have the ability to “roll over” to 2016-2017. This means that students can create accounts now and these accounts will be available for them to use in 2016-2017.

This new flexibility was made possible by the Common App’s relatively new association with Amazon Web Services and the additional storage gained by purchasing space in “the cloud.”  While not infinite, the expanded capability to store lots and lots of data has a number of advantages and this is one.

With this announcement, the Common App paves the way for counselors to introduce students to the Common App and the college application process long before senior year. And counselors are universally excited about the prospect of getting one element of the process—registering with the Common App—out of the way before the end of junior year.

But it turns out that account rollovers in this arena are a little tricky to implement.

“I have peeled a lot of onions in my day,” explained Scott Anderson, senior director at the Common App, during a recent retreat for professional members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). “This one has more layers than any of us originally imagined.”

In other words, setting up rollover accounts for the Common App not only generated an extraordinary number of questions but also produced a series of unintended consequences—short and long term—each of which needed to be dealt with internally before management could come up with a clear set of guidelines on how the new function would work.

What we know is that user name, password, Common App ID as well as “shared” information in the common portion of the application will be carried over from this year into next.

What we don’t know and can’t project is how member questions and other shared questions including the Common App personal statement might change in the coming months—before the 2016-17 launch.

Anderson explained that each year member screens are “built from scratch” by individual member institutions.  Membership, by the way, must be renewed each year and can potentially vary from year to year if some colleges decide to add or drop the Common App as an application provider.

As members construct their “screens,” new questions might pop-up or they might go away. In addition “choice values” or “pick lists” might change.  An example might be the possibility of adding “atheist” to the dropdown list of responses to questions asking about religious background. The challenge isn’t so much making the change as flagging the change for applicants to see and be aware of.

Colleges will have until the Common App goes dark in July, for a week to ten days, to complete and load their screens onto the system. It will only be after the August 1 launch that students will be able to see final questions and load final answers or essays into the system.

Another issue involves graduation year and how the Common App accounts for this key piece of information during registration.  Also, will the rollover function be restricted to juniors or will it be extended to younger students? And will underclassmen who have already opened accounts need to go back and provide information relative to their graduation year.

There are also complications involving transfer students or students who may become transfer applicants next year.  And there are questions about recommendations and recommenders.  Finally, there is the problem of coordinating with Naviance, which has been more of a struggle recently than in the past. 

But beyond all these basic logistical issues, there comes into play the question of interface with member colleges.  It’s no secret that the Common App shares data with its members, and this information is used by colleges for recruitment and tracking purposes.  

The way the system generally works, once an applicant, who has agreed to receive information from colleges during registration, loads names of institutions onto the “My Colleges” list, data flows from the application back to those colleges (for specifics, check the policies to which each user agrees during registration).  This typically happens less frequently at the beginning of the application season and more frequently more toward deadlines.

Colleges use this data to communicate with students. They mail brochures, send emails, and even “cold call” prospects who have demonstrated some level of interest by adding an institution’s name to the Common Application list. They also use it to get an idea of what their application numbers might look like.

Under this scenario, colleges could begin generating prospect lists from enthusiastic or very committed juniors who list institutions on “My Colleges” as soon they register. This would effectively support early recruitment, and the already frantic level of communication could be stepped up a notch beginning a full year before applications would be close to finalized or submitted.

And then the question arises as to how this information would be factored into “demonstrated interest” or enrollment management strategies.  The more information the student provides on the application, the more is potentially available for sharing with colleges. 

Note that although a student may easily change whether or not they care to receive information from colleges at any time after initial registration, once a college receives or downloads data from the Common App, it can’t be erased or undone. The student and their information merge into the institution’s enrollment management system and will remain there until the college determines it’s no longer useful or relevant.

Given this level of information sharing, expectations may need to be managed both from the institutional and applicant perspectives.  Colleges may need to review some of their recruitment practices taking into account that juniors are far from committing to final college lists. And counselors should stress that early registration with the Common App is more about learning and less about applying.

“I encourage registering, but not completing,” said Anderson. “I don’t want to encourage students to begin the college application process too early.”

Anderson also stressed that ability to roll over accounts should be used explore the process and not to engage colleges.  And he agrees that these issues need to be addressed as counselors begin introducing juniors to the Common Application.

Look for more specific guidelines as well as instructions relating to junior-year completion of the Common App to come out some time at the end of January or beginning of February.

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