Coalition of Universities Rethinks How Students Apply to College

Next year’s college applicants are on the cusp of generations Y and Z; born in the mid to late 1990s, this intermediary group is the most diverse and most technologically savvy demographic yet.

Colleges and universities are beginning to realize that identifying the most outstanding students from such a group requires a unique and multifaceted approach. Some admissions officials say the current Common Application process, which is used by more than 600 U.S. schools, does not accurately communicate an applicant’s strengths and accomplishments, in part because the student must scramble to compile application materials over a compressed period of time.

Further, in 2013, the Common Application suffered major glitches in its updated version. Students and admissions offices alike experienced setbacks, and many schools delayed their early-decision deadlines.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success developed out of the frustration caused by those glitches. Its goal is to improve the application process for students and colleges by offering an alternative to — but not necessarily a replacement for — the Common App. The coalition — which consists of more than 80 U.S. institutions of higher education that have proven excellence in affordability and graduation rates — has pledged to offer an application format that strives to be advantageous for low-income and first-generation students.

Member schools graduate at least 70 percent of their student body in six years and are able to provide adequate need-based financial aid for in-state students (at public institutions) and domestic students with significant needs (at private colleges and universities). Schools meeting these benchmarks were invited to join the coalition, but it expects to expand in the future.

The new application, which is tentatively set to launch in April 2016, will include a collaboration platform to facilitate communication between students and prospective schools. Students can also fill a private, virtual “locker” with photos, videos, essays, and other materials on which counselors, teachers, and mentors can provide feedback. When students apply to a college, they can add components saved in their locker to the application.

This new application will be compatible with mobile devices, laptops, and tablets for access on the go and will allow students to apply to any school within the coalition.

In addition to its goal of establishing a better application process, the coalition is committed to encouraging students to start thinking about their college applications earlier — as early as ninth grade, in fact. Critics say this puts additional stress on students, but some, like Rick Clark at coalition member-school Georgia Institute of Technology, say this is actually beneficial for students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or who are the first in their family to go to college.

“I make the parallel that the application process is like shooting off a starter gun, when the application becomes available in August,” says Clark, who is director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech. “Students whose parents have gone to college and come from a ‘college-going’ culture — for them the race is on in August, with deadlines coming up in October and November for early action. These students know what the racecourse looks like ahead of the game.

“But we know that there are many highly capable students, who aren’t from college-going backgrounds, who don’t hear the gun and aren’t even in the starting block. Some of these students are testing for the first time in the fall of their senior year.”

Clark says that by elongating the timeline for applying to college, the new application process will allow students to compile information as it is happening and will put them in the college-going mindset earlier. He gives as an example a student requesting a letter of recommendation from a teacher in ninth or 10th grade and saving that to his or her virtual locker. If that teacher retires or moves by the time the student is applying to college, a letter of recommendation is already secured.

Research has also shown that students who start thinking about college earlier are more likely to apply, an essential factor in bringing more first-generation students into higher education.

As with the Common App, coalition colleges and universities become part of a database of searchable member schools. According to Clark, this was one of the reasons Georgia Tech decided to join.

“We draw students from all over, but we don’t have a sizeable marketing budget or a robust recruiting staff,” he says. “This is a way for us to be in front of students [so] they see our name when they’re scrolling through the list of schools.”

Similarly, Clark hopes being a coalition member will help Georgia Tech enlarge its pool of applicants and lead to an increase in women and underrepresented minorities at the college.

Illinois State University (ISU) has similar hopes for the new application. Troy Johnson, associate vice president for enrollment management at the university, says it will allow for a more holistic depiction of prospective students.

“The new application gives students the chance to shine and show their ambitions and specialized qualities, like civic engagement and volunteer work,” he says. “More and more, we’re seeing the application process look at the different attributes students bring with them.”

Johnson doesn’t see the new application as a disadvantage for students who choose not to use it but as a unique option for those who do. Ultimately, he sees the new process as a way to change the perception of college for first-generation and low-income students.

“I’m hoping that this new application spurs a nationwide conversation about thinking and planning for college earlier so [that] students and families who otherwise may wait to apply or may not get in on time — that these conversations with students and families across the U.S. and in Illinois will start earlier and the college-going rate will continue to grow.”

ISU plans to use its current application process, along with the new multimedia coalition application. However, other member schools, such as the University of Washington (UW), plan to use the new application exclusively.

Paul Seegert, director of admissions at UW, says the school can’t support IT resources for two different applications, but he’s confident that CollegeNET, the vendor in charge of developing the new application platform, will be able to deliver the resources students need to apply.

Like Clark and Johnson, he is optimistic that the new application will attract a more expansive pool of prospective students.

“We hope that we receive more and better applications from students who are less likely to apply because of their socioeconomic background,” he says. “And we hope it’s easier for out-of-state students to apply because they’ll be applying to other coalition schools at the same time.”

For now, ahead of the official launch of the new application platform, it is hard to predict what the results will be and whether thinking about college earlier will alleviate or exacerbate students’ stress. The coalition does not pretend to have all the answers when it comes to college application accessibility, but it says it will continue to improve its platform based on feedback from students, parents, and admissions counselors.●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information about the coalition and the new application format, visit