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.

One reason is the Common App, which went online in 1998 and accelerated admissions in the same way online banking sped the paying of bills. It's a generic form students can complete once and send to any of 414 schools.

Sam Nelson, a 17-year-old senior at McLean High School, came to appreciate the Common Application after initiating applications to nine colleges, of which only three accept the Common App.

"I realize now what a pain it is to have to go through them all and fill out the same information over and over," he said.

Founded in 1975 as a nonprofit consortium of 15 schools, the Common App was perfectly poised for the age of online admissions, an evolution that made the "signature" college application look like a relic of the typewriter age.

One by one, the nation's top national universities have gone Common: Princeton and Cornell in 2004, Northwestern and Penn in 2006, Brown and the universities of Chicago and Virginia in 2008.

This year, the Common App claimed the final Ivy, Columbia, along with the University of Michigan.

Such is the enthusiasm for the Common App that it has spawned a competitor, the Universal College Application, launched in 2007 and serving more than 70 schools.

"There are 400 colleges at the fingertips of the students who complete the Common App," said Chris Gruber, a vice president at Davidson College who serves as president of the Common Application.

To universities, the form offers a potential gateway to thousands of untapped low-income and minority families. Of the half-million common applicants, one-third are minorities and one-quarter will be first-generation college students.

Of the 31 schools in the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a sort of expanded Ivy League, only two have resisted the Common App. One is MIT, a niche player with a specialized pool. The other is Georgetown.

Deacon says the Common App movement is less about access and more about admission metrics.

Joining the Common Application is said to yield a bump of 5 to 10 percent in a school's applicant pool. A surge in applicants makes a college look more selective. Competitive colleges are forever eyeing each other's numbers. Anyone who falls behind risks suffering in rank and prestige.

Applications to Brown jumped from 20,000 to 30,000 in the two years after the Rhode Island school joined the Common App. Applicants to the University of Chicago rose by half in that span. (Officials at both schools play down the Common Application as a factor.)

'Holistic' admissions

While other schools court unfettered growth, Georgetown's dean is intentionally slowing the expansion of his applicant pool.

Since 2000, applications to Georgetown have risen a modest 20 percent, from roughly 15,000 to 18,000. Deacon thinks his pool is large enough: more than 10 applicants for every seat in the 1,600-student freshman class. A manageable pool is key to his vision of "holistic" admissions, the process of assembling a class with a rich blend of academic accomplishment and life experience that is the hallmark of a selective college.

Deacon's peers say they have adapted to a larger pool. At Brown, admissions Dean Jim Miller brought in 15 part-timers last year to pad the staff of 17 full-time application readers. A careful read, he said, "is part of what we promise when people apply."

Schools that join the Common Application tend to experience reduced yield, a diminished share of admitted students who choose to attend. Some schools fix this by accepting larger numbers of students through binding early-decision programs, whose yield is effectively 100 percent.

That, to Deacon, is part of the game.

If a distinctive application makes it harder to apply to college, it's "not that much harder," said Stu Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT. Most selective colleges still require lengthy written supplements to the generic application, a practice that tends to thwart frivolous applicants and preserve each school's distinctive voice.

But for Nelson, the high school senior from McLean, the Common Application has proven an irresistible time-saver. Now he says he's thinking of applying to a 10th school, Harvard, "because it's on the Common App. You might as well."

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