Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The College Common Application: Ruminations on A Racket

'Tis the season -- countless high school seniors' breathless daily jaunts to the mailbox to see what colleges they'll be attending when the leaves start to turn next fall. Perhaps grimacing at the slim business envelopes containing brief, impersonal rejection letters printed over a college admission's officer rubber-stamped signature. Rejoicing when the mailbox moans bearing the weight of an over-sized envelope stuffed with a cavalcade of forms to be completed and returned scant weeks in advance of setting foot on the campus that was the object of desire and hope for many months past.

In the 1970's, when we were high school seniors applying to colleges and the Internet wasn't yet a gleam in anyone's eyes but DARPA's, each of our college applications was a painstakingly hand-crafted document. Each application required a lot of time, thought and work. Every august institution of higher learning had its own particular paper application that was the non-negotiable price of the ticket to be considered for admission.The majority of applications were handwritten. The more technologically courageous of us pecked out our applications on primitive machines, one long application at a time, with Royal typewriter keys slapping black ink into blank application spaces late into night after night. That was the way we filled out our applications to college, and that was the way millions of students did so before and for a good while after us.

The rigorous (if tedious) process of filling out applications meant that we only applied to a handful of colleges, ranging from ones we were confident would grant us admission, to one or two that roosted on the loftiest perches of our grandest collegiate ambitions. No one I knew applied to more than six colleges, and most applied to five or fewer. We applied only to the schools we were genuinely interested in attending, and we would have been pleased to invest four years of study at any one of the schools to which we applied.

The applications themselves were replete with essay questions. The requirement per application of a half dozen or more 500+ word essays on a variety of topics was far more the norm than the exception. I remember distinctly my response to one essay question in my damn-the-torpedoes application to Harvard University. The query asked were I admitted, what unique gifts I would bring to Harvard. Surging with youthful hubris, my essay began, "Ask not what I can do for Harvard, but what Harvard can do for me."

 I was not admitted to Harvard.

Times have changed, and like everything else DARPA's baby has touched in the past couple of decades, the Internet has restructured the college application process. Today, the overwhelming majority of collegiate applications are completed and submitted online, via the "Common Application." As of this writing, the Common Application is the preferred application method for 456 higher learning institutions in 46 states and the District of Columbia (as well universities in France, Germany, Italy, Scotland and Switzerland). For 148 of those 456 schools, the Common Application is the only permissible way to apply for admission.

While participating colleges are free to require additional information or responses to those on the Common Application's standard face, most don't. Those that do, don't necessarily solicit replies to additional essay questions. Reading essays takes time, you see.

How many essay questions are required by the standard Common Application? One -- "an essay of 250 to 500 words," on one of six topics. That's it. That's the entire extent of original, creative and well-reasoned writing demanded of college aspirants on the standard Common Application.

I've seen Thanksgiving grocery shopping lists with more than 250 words.

Regardless of the discipline, including mathematics and the hard sciences, effective writing is the crux of meaningfully recording and communicating ideas. There is no substitute for it. Accordingly, at the very least it's strange that the currently preferred procedure for millions of applicants to gain admittance to our citadels of higher learning deemphasizes rigorous writing.

The intriguing inquiry is, who benefits more from the point-and-click college application system: the applicants, or the colleges?

At first glance, you could think the Common Application benefits applicants most. After all, the point-and-click nature of the Common Application allows (if not encourages, as we'll see below) high school seniors to apply to any number of colleges with ease. Unlike just a few years ago, today it's the exception, rather than the rule, that high school seniors apply to less than ten colleges. Many file applications to more than ten colleges, limited only by how much money they and their families can afford to spend on admission application fees. And why not? Fill out the Common Application online, arm yourself with a credit card, and start clicking like you're on Amazon or ebay. Even if some of those schools want an additional question or two answered in an addendum to the Common Application, the applicant's investment in that extra work doesn't require that she fill out an entirely new application -- the vast majority of her application is exactly the same one she's already filled out and sent to all her other college choices.

If you think the Common Applications benefits applicants most, you think wrong.

Let's start by examining some U.S. college application and admission statistics from last year. UCLA had 61,513 applicants for its 15,551 freshman seats. Tulane's 2011 numbers were 37,751/9,376. The University of Virginia's were 24,010/7,750. Stanford's were 34,348/2,427. Duke's were 29,689/3,739. Georgetown's were 19,275/3,466. N.Y.U.'s were 42,242/10,831. In the aggregate, in 2011 just those seven Common Application schools collected almost 250,000 applications. They rejected about 80% of them. There's no reason to suppose the number of applications has decreased this year, nor to doubt the number of rejections hasn't concomitantly increased.

A typical college application fee is around $60.00 per application. Some are higher, some lower. But for broad stroke purposes, it's not infeasible to calculate that just those seven schools listed above raked in among themselves about 15 million dollars in application fees in 2011, and that about 12 million of those dollars were paid by rejected applicants.

I wonder how many applications, and attendant fees, those schools would have received had each institution required its own distinct application. A lot less, I'd guess. Likely a whole lot less.

In addition to the obvious financial disincentive to separate themselves from the Common Application, there's another enticement to keep colleges gorging at the Common App trough. Colleges jockey hard to ever raise their status in the annual college rankings published by sources like Kiplinger and U.S. News & World Report. One of the metrics considered by such publications in their ranking systems is how many applications a college receives per available incoming freshman seat. That's supposed to reflect demand for admission to a given college. However, the nature of the point-and-click Common Application artificially inflates demand beyond (if not far beyond) what statistics might reveal about true demand if a college required a unique application, heavy on the essays.

Then of course, that college can point to the (artificially) high demand for its freshman seats as an excuse to jack up tuition every year at paces vastly outstripping general inflation rates. That's great for student loan providers, too; especially given student loans are one of the very few debt obligations from which American bankruptcy laws offer no sanctuary.

Under the purportedly benign guise of simplicity and standardization, the prevalence of the Common Application has the markers of a racket. And it's a racket from which applicants benefit not most, but least.

Besides, since when are simplicity and standardization always so wonderful? There are milestones in life where celebrating the uncommon roundly trumps the alternative. Realizing a young person's collegiate dreams is one of them. College applications should be full of essays mindfully expressing those dreams, and college admissions offices should be eager to read every one of those essays in assembling its incoming class each year.

When we throw open the doors to the hallowed halls of Gazalapalooza University (mascot: the Mighty Word Slinger), we will not accept the Common Application. We will have our own Uncommon Application. Our Uncommon Application will be abundant with exacting essay requirements. We'll gladly read and consider our applicants' essays, despite the inefficient and time-consuming nature of doing so. From the very start we will hammer home to our applicants the first and most important lesson of higher education -- that cogent writing ought to matter greatly in getting into college, and it will matter greatly in making a lasting mark in the world after college.

"I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy."
~~Marie Curie~~ 

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