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Common Application Retains Its Flexibility–A Victory for Students Everywhere

Today the members of the Common Application removed the straight jacket they had previously imposed upon students. This decision is a victory for students, in that it allows them to retain control of their applications and make slight modifications to the forms submitted to each college or university to which they apply. As such, it is a victory for the rights of consumers over the rights of producers of educational services. The move to lock down the system and prevent students from making these modifications can be likened to the economic behavior of a cartel–trying to limit consumer choice.

For those who have not been following this story in the past few weeks, here’s the jist in bullet-point form.

  • The Common Application was originally designed to increase convenience for both applicants and institutions of higher education by standardizing most aspects of the college admissions application.
  • The Common App system, until a few weeks ago, allowed students to make some changes to applications it submitted to each school. One oft-cited example is the ability to choose different majors for different schools. To use the example in today’s InsideHigherEd article, if a student was interested in environmental science, she might not be able to find that major at all her selected schools, and she might want to modify for those schools to select “biology” instead. Colleges might assume she was ignorant of their programs if the selected major was not offered at their schools, reducing her chances for admission.
  • The members of the Common Application (all colleges and universities that use the Common App) wanted to reduce the perceived “gaming of the system” by students and dampen down the admissions frenzy.
  • So they “locked down” the system to prevent the previously-allowed ability to applications to individual schools.
  • The decision was poorly communicated and hastily announced at the beginning of the busy college admissions season.
  • College counselors had a fit; the assembled multitudes at the National Association for College Counseling convention at the end of September gave the Common App representative an earful.
  • The leaderships of the Common App handled the controversy badly–with a tone of arrogance and defiance at first.
  • Finally, today, the Common App folks backed down and returned the functionality to its system.

So what led the Common App to revert to the previously flexible system?

Well, the lobbying of the folks at NACAC was undoubtedly critical. College counselors everywhere were fit-to-be-tied over the bungled change. At the convention in Austin last month, the halls were abuzz with strategies to circumvent the straight jacket, and by recommendations that if the Common App system was inflexible, then students may as well abandon the Common App altogether and go back to using individual college’s applications.

But other economic factors probably came into play, too. First is the rise of the Universal College Application, launched by the same consulting firm hired by the members of the Common Application. Nothing helps focus a business decision like good, old-fashioned competition. And the Universal Application is not the only new player in the online application world. A couple of new upstarts are lurking on the horizon, including one here in Denver.

In the end, there is and should be a free market in the world of higher education. This is part of the genius of American higher education. Of course, a free market can be chaotic. It can also foster a sort of “frenzy” that the folks at the Common App, which they thought they could eliminate or at least reduce. But if reducing the frenzy leads to a reduction in choice and control by consumers, then we have a cartel in which the producers (colleges and universities) call the shots.

Whether a response to pressure or to economic competition, the Common Application’s decision today to return to a more flexible online application system is a victory for students.

And isn’t that what it’s all about? Helping students select and matriculate to the college that is the best fit for them? That’s certainly my professional priority.

Mark Montgomery
Montgomery Educational Consulting

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