May 23, 2016

Two women, two applications and an industry that’s lost its center

University of Puget Sound

A drama, which began over two years ago with the abrupt resignation of long-time Common App executive director* Rob Killion and continued with two years of “interim” leadership under Paul Mott, came to a happy conclusion last week with the announcement of Jenny Rickard, as the new Executive Director of the Common Application. Her appointment is the result of “an extensive and highly competitive” national recruitment campaign conducted by Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm with deep professional ties to the admissions community.

Ms. Rickard comes to the Common App most recently from University of Puget Sound and Bryn Mawr College, where she served as chief enrollment officer at both institutions. Prior to that, Ms. Rickard was Vice President for Higher Education Strategy at PeopleSoft and consulted for the higher education software company Datatel (now Ellucian). She also worked in admissions roles at Swarthmore College and the New York University School of Law. 

In addition to her professional experience, Ms. Rickard has served in a variety of volunteer positions with the College Board, the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), the U.S. Department of Education, and the Common App Board of Directors—President in 2007. 

“We are delighted that our new Executive Director comes not only with business and technology experience, but also knowledge of The Common Application membership and a dedication to the students, counselors, and partners who are working to advance college access,” said Gil J. Villanueva, Chair of The Common Application Board of Directors and Associate Vice President and Dean of Admission at the University of Richmond.

Ms. Rickard’s appointment comes a little over a week after the Common App’s Spring Member Summit, which she attended representing the University of Puget Sound. It also follows an earlier announcement  from the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, in which Annie Reznik, who also has ties to ACCIS and the independent counseling community was introduced as the new Executive Director of that organization.

Both women will be facing enormous challenges in their new positions leading technology-based organizations competing against one another for institutional members and application numbers. And with both organizations seeking to court business from an unpredictable high school customer base, each will be working to develop products appealing to adolescents while simultaneously meeting the enrollment management goals and objectives of colleges and universities.

At the same time, both organizations are working hard to advance the goals of increased college access among underrepresented and disadvantaged groups.

“The Common Application is a proven engine for advancing college access. One-third of the applicants to our nearly 700 member institutions are the first in their families to attend college,” said Ms. Rickard. “I’m committed to expanding access to such an experience and supporting my colleagues and their institutions as we all navigate the increasingly dynamic and complex enrollment landscape.”   

And this landscape is attracting a series of mixed messages from the various communities the applications serve. While Ms. Reznik, on behalf of the Coalition, has been receiving criticism for introducing the “Student Locker,” a portfolio development tool targeted to students as early as freshman year of high school, the Common App has been quietly working with ZeeMee to do much the same thing. In fact, ZeeMee, which targets students as early as 8th grade, was granted what appeared to be an extended “infomercial” at the Common App’s recent Summit in Washington, D.C., as members were urged to “join the movement” and add a ZeeMee field to their 2016-17 Common Applications for free

But the drive to reach larger audiences and bring in more business through mobile apps and portfolios featuring videos and carefully curated links to social media isn’t going to stop anytime soon. And if what we see now is any indication of what the future may hold, both organizations stand the possibility of contributing to instead of curbing college application frenzy.

Anyone familiar with the personalities and egos that rule the college admissions industry at the institutional level know that both Ms. Reznik and Ms. Rickard have their work cut out for them.  But absent the competitive nature of the business, the background and experience each brings to her job suggests some hope for a more student-centered process going forward—remote as that might seem at the moment.

*5/23/16 Correction

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