The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Prestige schools team up on redesigned college application

The University of Maryland is one of about 80 schools in a new college application coalition. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

More than 80 of the most selective colleges and universities are teaming up to design a new application system that aims to deepen engagement with high school students, especially those from low-income families.

By next summer, the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success plans to unveil an online application that will be an alternative to the widely used Common Application. The coalition announced Monday includes 52 private and 31 public schools. Its membership includes the Ivy League, other highly selective liberal arts colleges and research universities, and public flagship campuses in states such as Florida, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia.

At many of the schools, the application would take effect for students who are now high school juniors, while others could adopt it more slowly.

Applying to selective colleges is an annual rite that has become more intense in recent years. The peak of the stress hits in the fall of senior year, when students are racing to meet early application deadlines in October and November. At ultra-selective schools, admission rates have plunged to as low as 5 percent (at Stanford University) while application totals have soared. Students from wealthy families, with access to top teachers, counselors, tutors and consultants, are much better equipped to navigate application season than those who come from poverty. Often, disadvantaged students with strong credentials will apply to only a few schools in their region, in the mistaken belief that they couldn’t get into or afford elite schools elsewhere.

“The college admission process today can be stress-inducing, and we know it can present barriers for all students, especially for those who are the first in their family to attend college,” said Zina L. Evans, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Florida.

Florida and others in the coalition joined together to fashion what officials say will be a less-stressful and more user-friendly approach to thinking about college, one that helps underprivileged students raise their ambitions. They envision that students will use free online tools from as early as ninth grade to begin assembling an academic self-portrait and a list of possible colleges that might fit their goals. The first set of planning tools will be introduced in January.

“This is going to be a way to level the playing field,” said David W. Oxtoby, president of Pomona College in California, which belongs to the coalition.

The coalition arose partly in response to concerns about the Common App, which serves more than 600 colleges and universities and is a dominant force in the admissions field. The Common App weathered heavy criticism two years ago when it rolled out a new version of its online application that was plagued with technical glitches. Those glitches have since been solved. Oxtoby said Pomona plans to continue to use the Common Application, as well as the coalition’s own application. “Competition is always good,” he said.

[In 2013: Common App glitches exposed vulnerabilities in admission system, and application deadlines were extended at many colleges.]

Aba Blankson, a spokeswoman for the Common App, said the organization has redesigned its Web site and taken other steps recently to help engage college-bound students. Asked about the coalition, Blankson said a primary goal of the Common App is to improve access for all students. “We’re focused on doing what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years,” Blankson said. “Helping more students apply to college, and helping them find the right fit.”

Barbara Gill, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Maryland, another coalition member, said that too often college planning is “condensed into a very short window in the beginning of senior year. That creates a lot of frenzy.” Getting more students to plan earlier, she said, “could decrease some of that.”

Gill said some of the coalition’s planning tools would be like an online “locker,” allowing students to upload videos, photographs or other work that documents their academic record. That would help them talk about college goals with counselors and other experts. She said College Park does not plan to drop any of its core application requirements. Applicants will still be required to submit a transcript, an essay, admission test scores and recommendations.

College planning tools are hardly new. Many high schools pay private vendors to provide their students with online college research and planning services, such as Naviance. But the coalition says that its tools will be available for free, making them attractive to high schools with tight budgets.

To join the coalition, colleges and universities must have a six-year graduation rate of at least 70 percent. Those that are public must have tuition deemed affordable for in-state students, and those that are private must commit to meeting the full, demonstrated financial need of every domestic student they admit. “We want to make sure the universities and colleges that participate have a proven track record,” Gill said.

Here is the full list of coalition members: 

Amherst College
Bates College
Bowdoin College
Brown University
Bryn Mawr College
California Institute of Technology
Carleton College
Clemson University
Colby College
Colgate University
College of Holy Cross
College of William & Mary
Colorado College
Columbia University
Connecticut College
Cornell University
Dartmouth College
Davidson College
Duke University
Emory University
Franklin and Marshall College
Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology
Grinnell College
Hamilton College
Harvard University
Haverford College
Illinois State University
Indiana University – Bloomington
James Madison University
Johns Hopkins University
Miami University – Ohio
Michigan State University
Middlebury College
Mount Holyoke College
North Carolina State University at Raleigh
Northeastern University
Northwestern University
Oberlin College
Ohio State University
Penn State
Pomona College
Princeton University
Purdue University
Reed College
Rice University
Rutgers University – New Brunswick
Skidmore College
Smith College
St Olaf College
Stanford University
State University of New York – College at Geneseo
State University of New York – University at Buffalo
Swarthmore College
Texas A&M University
Tufts University
Union College
University of Chicago
University of Connecticut
University of Florida
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Maryland – College Park
University of Michigan
University of Minnesota – Twin Cities
University of Missouri
University of New Hampshire
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Notre Dame
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pittsburgh
University of Rochester
University of South Carolina
University of Vermont
University of Virginia
University of Washington
Vanderbilt University
Vassar College
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Washington University in St. Louis
Wellesley College
Wesleyan University
Williams College
Yale University