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How Can the College Application Process Be Improved?

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Over the last few years, voices from various arenas have begun to complain that increased competition in the college admissions process has become too stressful, too focused on getting into the “right” college, and overly focused on personal success.

A recent report by Harvard’s Making Caring Common, called “Turning the Tide,” was written after it conducted a survey of 10,000 middle and high school students and found that only 22 percent ranked “caring for others” as more important than their own personal success and happiness. The report pleads for a kinder, gentler college admissions process that would de-emphasize the importance of classic academic markers like AP classes and test scores, and asks to make sure students provide proof that community service projects had real meaning in their lives.

But more importantly, it calls out ways in which the top-tier colleges “shut out” lower-income students through tactics like legacy admissions and early-decision applications. Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, articulates how the overly competitive admissions process “warps the values of students drawn into a competitive frenzy. It jeopardizes their mental health. And it fails to include — and identify the potential in — enough kids from less privileged backgrounds.”

The competition to get into the nation’s top colleges has been on the rise, some of it simply the result of more eligible students, both here and from around the world. “The increase in students and applications continue to push acceptance rates lower and lower,” wrote Lindsey Cook, data editor for U.S. News and World Report, in a piece about the stress and competition wrapped around college admissions. “In 1988, the acceptance rate for Columbia University in New York was 65 percent, according to U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges edition that year. In our most recent guide, 33,531 applied to Columbia and 2,311 were accepted. That’s not even 7 percent.”

“For the last thirty years the machinery of college admissions has solved the administrative problem created by America’s surfeit of smart and eager high-school students,” laments Matt Feeney in his recent New Yorker piece, “by inventing new, pedagogically empty ways for them to compete with one another, laying out new grounds on which they might fight one another.”


Universities, as well as some organizations, are looking at how students apply to college and asking what can be done to revamp and renew the process and make it more equitable, raising some sincere questions: Is it the applications process itself that’s unfair? If applying to college could start earlier, would that lessen the stress and even the playing field, and make the nation’s top colleges accessible to different kinds of students? Or would it just increase the pressure?

Early Conversations

Veronica Hauad still has the paper file folder given to her by her high school admissions counselor early in her high school career. Following her counselor’s direction, over four years, Hauad slowly filled it with everything she wanted to have on hand when she applied to college: her transcripts, test scores, awards she won, the now-obsolete floppy disk of her college essay.

Now the deputy dean of admissions and director of Equity and Access Programming at the University of Chicago, Hauad keeps the overflowing folder in her office, to remind both herself and high school applicants that “the application process shouldn’t be this frenzied process in the fall of your senior year, which is already busy,” she said. “Let’s think long term, about my identity and what my application will look like.”

It’s also there to remind Hauad how technology has changed college admissions.

The University of Chicago is one of more than 80 top-tier colleges and universities that joined together to form the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success this past fall, with the mission of improving the college application process for all students. Schools that have joined the coalition — including all the Ivy League schools, more than 30 public and research universities as well as small liberal arts colleges -- must meet certain requirements, including a high graduation rate and meeting a large portion of demonstrated financial need or offering low in-state tuition.

The coalition’s approach will have three key components:

* The application itself, which will debut in July  and will be similar to most other online college applications
* A digital locker, or online storage, available in April 2016, where students can store work they may like to include in their college application beginning in ninth grade, including written work as well as audio and video of performances or exhibitions
* A collaboration platform (also coming in April) that allows students to share their application and essay with a coach or mentor to receive feedback and advice before submitting.

The coalition promises its platform will be smoother and more reliable than the more universal Common App, used to apply to more than 600 schools, which has been plagued with technical issues in the past. (The Common App, in what may be a response to the coalition’s platform, has also beefed up its website to include a rollover application students can fill out beginning junior year, a platform for school counselors to guide students through the process, and a free mobile app, Common App on Track, which will help remind students of upcoming application deadlines.)

While the coalition’s new application and collaboration platform promise to make the application process smoother and easier, exactly how the its free site will give lower-income students better access and equality to top-tier schools is a little less clear, except maybe to give students more information on schools they may not have heard of or assumed were out of their league academically or financially.

Hauad said that even though the coalition application will be the same, how schools evaluate applications varies in every case. “There are colleges that don’t require testing, some do. There are colleges that don’t really rely on recommendations, some do,” she said. “So we’re all doing this different ways as it currently stands.”

Hauad said the coalition hopes that the impressive list of schools, coupled with the free application tools, will get students thinking that their chances of going to a more highly selective (and more expensive) school might be better than they think. Hauad said what she loves about the coalition app is that an underrepresented student may look at the list and recognize some names, but then also see some colleges she’s never heard of.

“I think part of the frenzy of college admissions in this country is the idea that there are only 12-15 schools worth going to, and that is not true,” she said. “There are tons of schools serving students with tons of amazing ways, in and out of the classroom, financially, and post-grad. I love that you can look at this list and say, here are some schools that I recognize, here are some other schools that are keeping company with these great schools, now I fleshed out a bigger list.”

Many coalition schools waive application fees if a student is applying for financial aid, making it easy for lower-income students to apply to more schools. And from the coalition’s point of view, a bigger list is an ideal list.

Schools are Getting Ready

High school guidance counselor Joe Levickis oversees 113 seniors, along with about 200 more freshmen, sophomores and juniors, at Hunter’s Lane High School, located on the northern tip of Nashville, Tennessee. When he’s asked when he starts talking to his students -- 86 percent of whom live below the poverty line -- about college, Levickis, 26 and a first-generation college graduate himself, smiles.

“The day they walk in the door,” he said.

Hunter’s Lane has about 1,700 students divided into smaller and more personal 350-student academies, where counselors like Levickis get to spend four years with the same kids, all of whom are on a college-prep track. Beginning with a seminar class at the start of freshman year, Levickis and the team of teachers are talking to the students about college -- on-campus college fairs, visits to surrounding schools and even college-shirt day -- from the day they start high school.

Since many of their students will be first in their families to apply to college, anything they can do to help their students get serious about college they consider a good thing. To that end, all the college prep appears to be paying off at first glance: 75 percent of the Hunter’s Lane graduating class of 2015 got into the two- or four-year college of their choice, and together the students earned over $5 million in scholarships, which is a huge win for both the students and the school.

Levickis said the top four schools where his students were accepted were Nashville State Community College, Volunteer State Community College, Tennessee State University and Austin Peay, all schools less than 50 miles from Nashville. Levickis said he didn’t know of any Hunter's Lane students who applied to Ivy League schools last year, though one student who is graduating in 2016 did a recent interview at the Citadel.

Both Levickis and principal Dr. Susan Kessler got excited about the coalition’s idea of the digital locker, and beginning to have students gather and store their work beginning in ninth grade, which supports all the work they do getting their kids to plan to go to college. They also think that an easy and free way to apply to the bigger schools might encourage students to shoot for the stars.

But Dr. Susan Kessler admits that getting her students into college isn’t really the problem, it’s getting the students to show up on the first day. While Hunter’s Lane tracks where each student gets into college, it has no idea how many kids show up to those colleges in the fall, but knows that it’s not anywhere near the 75 percent.

Because so many students live on the edge of poverty, actually attending the college that accepted them means all of their stars must align by August: one illness, broken-down car or unexpected expense like the cost of books might mean that students who worked so hard to apply and get into college never show up for their first class.

Kessler tells the story of when she took her own son to college, and realized once they got there that he needed more stuff: “I had to go to the local Wal-Mart and spent $700. Well, I live in a two-income family, and I can have an unexpected expense like that,” she said. “But if you’re living at the poverty level, then you can’t. So things like that, or an illness in the family, a parental illness, that stuff often gets in the way of children going off to school.”

Even so, Levickis and Kessler say that any tool, especially a free one, that will make it easier for their students to apply to college is a useful one, even though the coalition’s effort to reach students like the ones at Hunter’s Lane calls into question whether a new kind of application will actually help the students it’s trying to reach, who often have much more basic problems.

Hauad emphasizes that the coalition’s new tools may not solve all the problems with elite college admissions, but are nonetheless an important first step.


“I’m really excited about the potential here and I think it’s something people forget,” Hauad said. “No one’s saying that it’s The Answer, capital A, to any one thing. But I’m excited about the potential. And to me, potential is where you can make a difference in a lot of ways. So I’m very excited, as a practitioner working in access, about the potential.”

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