Injecting Hope, Integrity and Technology into College Admissions

There is only one constant in the ever changing world of college admissions:

“Colleges and universities have the exclusive and unfettered right to control their application process and the metrics they choose to screen and assess their applicants.”

The Common Application, introduced in 1975, now serves over 500 colleges and can trace its roots back to the first “character” college application adopted by Columbia University in 1919. The Common Application ushered in the age of mass produced college applications by leveraging technology to digitally deliver grades, essays, recommendations and standardized test scores to college admissions offices everywhere. These homogenized applications are designed to give priority to GPAs and standardized test scores. When these numbers run uniformly high among applicants, as they do for most select colleges, the inherent void of unique datasets within the Common Application yields nothing more than purely random admissions decisions

To reduce their reliance on generic test scores, many schools have adopted test optional admissions policies. These forward thinking schools have been ridiculed for trying to appear to be more selective by lowering their admissions rates as they entice more students to apply by offering an easier admissions process.

Goucher College recently made headlines by introducing a video application to help students showcase their true talents and abilities in a new and imaginative way. Many critics questioned Goucher’s motives for inviting students to present themselves in such an unorthodox manner. The high school counselor community was especially dismissive of Goucher’s idea calling it a gimmick.  It’s not like Stanford, Michigan, Northwestern, Notre Dame, University of Virginia, Duke, the eight Ivy League schools or 68 other prestigious colleges and universities would resort to some cheap gimmick to overhaul the time-tested sanctity of the college admissions process based principally on transcripts and test scores.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability & Success is a diverse group of 82 public and private colleges and universities united in the desire to improve the college admission application process for all students. The centerpiece of the Coalition’s vision is a set of online tools to streamline the experience of applying to college. Social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have proved to be reliable and interactive transmitters of rich and compelling personal content. The Coalition schools should be applauded for leveraging these underlying technologies to enable applicants to transmit enriched data for evaluation.  

The intent of the Coalition is to help students make their college applications more reflective and personalized. By encouraging students to place actual work product in a digital portfolio as early as freshman year, students can reflect on their development as a student and their life experiences during high school when they assemble their application in the fall of senior year. To demystify the financial aid process, the Coalition is creating lines of communications to be used by students and colleges earlier than senior year. 

“Why has the high school counselor community responded so negatively to the yet to be released Coalition Application?”

The Coalition’s schools have been at the receiving end of the barrage of applications generated by the Common Application and they alone are in a position to determine when enough is enough. The Coalition is re-imagining the admissions process by leveraging widely available technologies not just to automate the delivery of legacy metrics such as grades, test scores and essays but to also deliver richer, relevant and more compelling applicant content. This all sounds so reasonable and timely yet so very disruptive. 

I recently attended a meeting where a high school counselor summarily dismissed the Coalition Application and emphatically stated that [her] “school is and will remain a Common App school!” Her colleagues around the table shook their heads in agreement and then went on to mock the Coalition’s intent to engage students as early as freshmen year. In unison, as if it was a mantra, they chided “Freshman year should just be about having fun.” As the conversation with these counselors turned to the importance of teaching students how to build a digital portfolio, one counselor asserted “The only documents colleges need to consider are grades, strength of schedule and MY recommendation letter!” 

Change and the fear of the unknown is scary. The Coalition has come together in an attempt to make applying to college relevant again. Over the last twenty plus years, grades, test scores and essays have lost their ability to objectively distinguish between so many qualified applicants. The process has long favored the affluent, blocked the underprivileged and prevented many students from receiving the education they would otherwise be qualified to receive. Talented students who are worthy of consideration by the Coalition’s schools will welcome the opportunity to showcase themselves in ways that traditional college admissions metrics simply can’t handle. 

The high school counselors who argue against the Coalition’s desire to engage students as early as freshman year also likely warn those same students that one non “A” grade freshman year will destroy their chances of getting into a highly selective school. The high school counselors who maintain that a digital portfolio is an unnecessary stress inducer for students and parents are the same counselors who have helped create the billion-dollar college advisory industry preying on the importance of SAT/ACT scores, GPA, essays and extracurricular activities. The Coalition is simply recognizing that technology can now deliver personalized information about applicants that was never before possible. Numbers need to give way to more personalized stories.

It’s a brave new world and the Coalition deserves credit for trying to bring college admissions into the 21st century. Our high schools and high school counselors need to support that effort. All students and parents should be made aware of the pending Coalition Application as a viable option regardless of whether school counselors endorse it or not. While it entails embracing change on a large scale, we all must remember that high school counselors are conduits and not gatekeepers.