For Georgetown dean, Common Application is part of a larger admissions problem

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 9:24 PM

Gone are the days when students aspiring to America's best colleges agonized over a stack of distinct but largely duplicative forms. This is the age of the Common App, an innovation that saves students time and has the happy side effect of swelling applicant pools, giving schools the illusion of rising selectivity without the reality of improved academic offerings.

Charlie Deacon, gatekeeper at Georgetown University for the past 38 years, is determined to resist this trend by continuing to fill the freshman class with students of sufficient dedication to slog through a six-page, two-part application form that is accepted nowhere else.

To Deacon, the Common Application is part of a larger problem: the admissions bubble, a geometric increase in college applications that he likens to the millennial housing market, in an admissions industry that increasingly resembles big business.

"We don't have the Common App because we think that each person is unique and each school is unique," said Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown. "We don't want people to apply for the wrong reasons."

Deacon and other industry leaders gathered Thursday in St. Louis for an annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, where vendors hawk databases of top-scoring high school seniors and the latest in student recruitment intelligence.

Few of Deacon's colleagues publicly share his views. Many admire his pluck.

"It's a business. That's a fact now," said Greg Roberts, a onetime Deacon protege who directs admissions at the University of Virginia. "It's a very different field than it was when Charlie started, or even when I started."

Sticking to his guns

Deacon took over Georgetown admissions at a time when more than half of applicants gained admission and the school's chief competition came from neighboring George Washington and Catholic universities.

Energetic and affable, Deacon helped steer Georgetown's ascent from a provincial to national university, building a cross-country network of alumni and recruitment to mirror those of the Ivy League schools. In 1979, Barron's elevated Georgetown to its list of "most competitive" colleges.

Today, Deacon contends that most of his peers use the Common Application to inflate their numbers. The form encourages the noncommittal applicant, a drawback acknowledged by many in the admissions field.

"Unfortunately, what the Common App does is, it stimulates a lot of frivolous applications," said Susan Tree, director of college counseling at Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school outside Philadelphia and an advocate of the Common Application.

Applications to many elite schools have doubled in the past decade. One applicant in five now applies to seven or more colleges, a number once thought excessive.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company