By Nick Anderson, Published: October 23
Until this fall, the main beef with the Common Application seemed to be that the form made it too easy to apply online to multiple colleges. Skeptics worried that college-bound students were stressing themselves out by applying to too many schools, and they saw the Common App as enabling what they perceived to be a questionable trend.
Now there is a new critique.
Glitches in the rollout of a new version of the Common App have posed unexpected hurdles for many students seeking admission to selective colleges, and for the counselors and teachers who are supporting them — detailed in this Washington Post article Tuesday and in numerous other media reports. Some college admissions offices, too, have complained about difficulties in connecting their computer systems to the new Common App software.
One reader wrote Tuesday to ask The Post to take a closer look at the Common App.
“You might want to consider looking further into this organization,” he wrote. “It has a virtual lock on the application process, must make tons of money, and nobody really knows who ‘they’ are. How much do they make? Who’s the President? Who’s on the Board? Lots of disappointed parents would be interested to know.”
The Post article noted that the Common App, which serves 517 member colleges and universities, is run by a nonprofit organization based in Arlington.
The 2011 federal tax return for the Common Application Inc. contains no major revelations. Annual revenues are about $13 million, most of which comes from application fees. No one draws a big salary. The executive director, Rob Killion, oversees a small staff — about eight paid employees, as of this fall — and contractors who help run the program.
The board of directors, listed on this Web site, comprises admissions officers and college counselors. The president is Thyra Briggs, vice president for admission and financial aid at Harvey Mudd College in California. The president-elect is Eric Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. Also on the board is Greg Roberts, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia.
Common App officials said they plan to expand their staff by mid-2014, bringing in-house some functions now provided by Hobsons Inc., based in Cincinnati. Hobsons also runs the Naviance college-planning service, widely used in high schools, as well as the online forum College Confidential.
For the Common App, founded in 1975, the spotlight on glitches — with students getting frozen out of their work or getting billed multiple times for a single application, among other issues — is a painful twist to what officials had hoped would be a story about an improved version of their online form. Version 4 is designed to be cleaner and simpler, while giving colleges essentially the same amount of information about an applicant that they have always received. The hope was — and remains — that a smoother application would help improve access to the nation’s most selective institutions, especially for students who are the first in their families to go to college.
“The last few days have comprised the most difficult period in The Common Application’s nearly 40 years of service to the education community,” officials said in a statement posted Friday. “You have no doubt read news stories and social media conversations about the challenges facing applicants, recommenders, and member colleges. As an organization, we have been too slow to respond. That ends today.”
Officials pledged to be more transparent about user-reported problems and the status of efforts to fix them. They said they are working through the bugs. But they note that record numbers of applications have been filed at this early stage in the admission cycle — 229,185 as of Oct. 18, filed by 97,281 students. Both numbers are up 19 percent from the year before.
Students who have not encountered problems “far outnumber the ones who have,” said Scott Anderson, senior director for policy for the Common App, who is a former admissions officer at Cornell University. But he stressed that the organization acknowledges shortcomings in the rollout.
A key checkpoint will come in the next few days as early admission deadlines arrive for many schools in the period from Nov. 1 through Nov. 15. If the Common App survives that test, that will probably reassure nervous college officials who are looking at regular admission deadlines in January and wondering whether they need to have a backup plan if the system fails.
As a postscript, here are colleges and universities in the District, Maryland and Virginia that are listed as exclusive users of the Common App: American University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, George Washington University, College of William & Mary, University of Virginia, University of Mary Washington, University of Richmond, Christopher Newport University, Goucher College, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Virginia Commonwealth University and Washington & Lee University.
Many other schools in the region use the Common App but also offer students alternative ways to apply.