Jon Boeckenstedt of DePaul University, left, listens as a vendor explains a virtual campus tour device at a college admissions convention in Indianapolis in September 2014.  (Alan Petersime for The Washington Post)

In the college admissions world, debate has sprung up about the best way to recruit students from low-income families. The Common Application, used by more than 600 schools, is a major player in the field. But a new coalition of prestigious schools is forming an alternative application. Here is a viewpoint about that coalition from Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University in Chicago. DePaul, the nation’s largest Catholic university, is not a member of the coalition but does use the Common App.

By Jon Boeckenstedt

Last week, a group of 83 public and private colleges and universities made an announcement that stunned much of higher education: They were joining together to form “The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success.”

Although details were somewhat vague, the purported goal of the group was to encourage more students from low-income families to consider and apply to this group of colleges, which includes all eight Ivy League institutions and many other prestigious private and public universities.

[Prestige schools team up on new college application]

The group plans a new application for admission and a collection of online tools to provide guidance and advice to students, as well as a portfolio tool for students to begin to collect materials to support the college application as early as ninth grade.

The collective response of high school counselors, independent consultants and college admissions officers at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in San Diego was, “Huh?” Followed immediately by, “What?”

Access for underserved populations is a popular topic these days in the admissions and financial aid worlds, so this was not likely the reception the coalition members expected. But an inspection of the details — or at least those that have been revealed — yields more questions than it answers, and even causes many to ask if this isn’t either counterproductive, or perhaps an attempt to introduce something else in the attractive wrapper of a popular topic.

Buzz was so intense that a session on a normally sleepy Saturday morning at the NACAC conference was moved to a ballroom to accommodate the interest. There, three representatives of coalition members, reading carefully prepared statements to a room of several hundred, indicated that the inspiration for this project was not really access at all, but rather a widely publicized dissatisfaction with the Common Application related to the rollout of a new platform in 2013 that had not been adequately tested and was riddled with problems. In addition, they said, there was great concern that Common App was a “monopoly” (a charge leveled in a recently-dismissed lawsuit against Common App by College Net, the group building the new coalition application) and was restricting what colleges could do with their admissions processes. “Our applications were not really ours,” said one panelist.

While acknowledging that this discussion has been two years in the making, the coalition also pleaded for help from guidance and independent counselors, claiming to be “only four days old.” Its representatives said repeatedly that “we don’t have all the answers.” Even so, the group plans to launch its tools in January, without doing any public beta- or even alpha-testing. The coalition only recently added a group of counselors to serve on an advisory board. The irony of launching an untested product that arose from dissatisfaction with another untested product was not lost on the crowd.

It is one of the dirty secrets of higher education that the most selective and prestigious private universities carry far less share of the load when it comes to enrolling low-income students, especially in light of the enormous wealth they collectively hold. Unfortunately, though, the coalition seems unable to answer how, exactly, an increasingly fractured application process is likely to help low-income students, who, already handicapped by a lack of information and guidance, seem confused by the current esoteric system, and whose lack of applications to these institutions is ostensibly the problem to be addressed.

News, of course, travels at different speeds in different communities. Several guidance counselors from the high school side indicated that they had already heard from the wealthy, driven, successful and college-educated parents of their ninth graders, who want to get an early start on the process and have asked how to start a portfolio. No one suggested they’d heard similar things from the target audience of low-income parents or students. In fact, when someone asked, “Why don’t you make this application and suite of tools available only to low-income students?” the response was effectively, “we’d never even considered that before.”

If the group of colleges seems like strange bedfellows, you’re right. The apparently non-negotiable requirement for admission is a 70 percent six-year graduation rate for freshmen, but private institutions in the coalition must also meet 100 percent of full demonstrated financial need. Public institutions must have “low” in-state tuition and offer need-based financial aid. This seems reasonable until you understand what this means, and the data lying underneath it.

“Meeting need” is largely dependent on two things: First, a student needs to be admitted, of course, and many of the private colleges in the coalition are “need aware” (that is, ability to pay is a factor in the admissions decision), meaning poorer students are not treated equally in the admissions process. Even when a college claims to be need-blind, virtually every single factor the admissions office uses in their evaluations favors wealthy applicants (which may be why many of these institutions have problems enrolling low-income students).

Second, “need” is essentially what the college says it is. Most of these institutions use a tool called Profile, in addition to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, in an attempt to collect more information than the government form requires. That often raises the expected family contribution — leading to the expectation of a substantial contribution from summer work, for example, even from students who do not have summer jobs or who may be actively contributing to the support of their family.

Ultimately, the data do not lie. Several of these private institutions are among the very worst when it comes to enrolling Pell grant students, who are from the lowest-income brackets. There are notable exceptions, but some coalition members had as few as 1 in 20 freshmen on Pell in 2013. Nationwide, nearly 40 percent of undergraduates receive the Pell.

The public university requirements are equally puzzling. While all have the requisite 70 percent graduation rates, some have graduation rates for Pell grant students in the mid-50’s, with 15-point differences between Pell and non-Pell students. Some have low Pell participation rates that mimic the most selective private institutions. In recent years, many have ramped up efforts to recruit wealthier students from beyond their borders to offset decreases in state funding. Given the strong relationship between standardized test scores and family wealth, and given colleges’ continuing, almost rabid, quest for prestige via impressive statistical profiles, this is not surprising.

Logic might suggest that membership for public institutions also require high graduation rates for all students, especially those in the target audience. And, beyond “low in-state tuition,” low net price to students might also be a good guide. Unfortunately, about 1 in 5 of these public universities has a net price (out-of-pocket costs for tuition, fees, room and board) of over $12,000 for families with incomes under $30,000 a year. A reasonable person might expect an actual commitment to access before attempting to find more students with more need. Many of the public and the private colleges in the coalition have done so, but others clearly have not. Perhaps the motivation for membership in this group was that it was simply too attractive to pass up. Maybe, as the origins of the coalition suggest, it’s not really about improving access at all.

At the heart of this is a simple question: Are low-income students really hard to find? Or could the admissions processes simply be ignoring them by requiring students from resource-poor backgrounds to look and act like wealthier students? In 2013, the 52 private colleges in the coalition denied admission to 631,000 students; the 1,231 other private, degree-granting, four-year colleges in the United States denied only 1.4 million among them. The eight Ivy League members of the coalition alone denied over 220,000. If one believes the rhetoric that as many as half of those denied at the Ivies are academically capable, and if only 10 percent of those are low-income, the eight most prestigious institutions in the nation might be sitting on a pool of over 10,000 good candidates from which to choose. (Of course, some of these are the same students denied at one place and admitted at another.)

Here the old adage seems true: Things that look, walk and quack like ducks are ducks. I have even suggested in an earlier piece in The Post that Google could serve as a good basis for portfolio repositories for students, although that was intended to be inclusive rather than limited to a group of elite institutions. But while the wrapper the coalition puts on this initiative attempts to make it look like it’s about access, it doesn’t walk and it doesn’t quack like a duck. What makes more sense is that a group of America’s most high-profile private colleges, already obsessed with prestige, are attempting to grab more. They are doing so by joining with some of America’s most prominent public universities, and by making hollow promises to low-income kids they could already serve if they really wanted to.