Locked Out? What the New Coalition Application Means for College Admissions

The Coalition Application promises to increase access, affordability, and success for college applicants. But will it deliver? Here's the inside scoop.

Every fall, college admissions officers and high school college counselors meet at the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC) conference. This year’s meeting was in San Diego and was bigger than ever, with 7,200 attendees.

And every year, there is a hot issue or two. Sometimes, these issues are only “hot” to those of us who are insiders. I remember one year when the heated issue, much debated on the floor, was whether we were to be the National Association of ADMISSIONS Counselors or ADMISSION counselors. The theologians in support of ADMISSION won out; I don’t remember why.

Some years, the hot issue is truly important, and truly hot, and this year that issue was the proposed implementation of a new application by 83 of the most selective colleges and universities in the country

From Common to Coalition

We had been primed for the conversation about a new application by a couple of years of rumors and speculation. Somehow, we all knew that, following the technical difficulties in the implementation of the new version of the Common Application in 2013, some admissions deans wanted their own application under their own control. Word circulated that the new application would be developed and shared by members of the Consortium for the Financing of Higher Education (COFHE), the 35 members of which include all the Ivy League schools, all of the group formerly known as the Seven Sisters, Chicago, Stanford, Williams, Amherst, and, basically, the richest and most selective colleges in America. (Some few brave members, MIT and Georgetown, for example, will wait and see if the application really delivers what it promises.)

So, as frequently happens when rumors circulate and only partial information is made available, suspicious outsiders recoiled, and the venture became known as the “elitist” application.

Who would the new application serve, and how? The initiating desire, as far as we know, was that such an application would reliably do what it was supposed to do by giving the colleges more freedom to design their own sections of the shared application. So far, so good.

Not as good, from the point of view of many of the admissions people from non-elite schools, was that the new application emerged from some institutions that had been, for a time, intent on doing anything possible to gain more applications, and consequently, lower their acceptance rate.

What if these elite colleges, already market leaders, had in mind even more completely cornering the market on applications from the most ambitious students in America? What if those applications could be bundled together in the interests of a self-declared cadre of the “best” colleges (who needs U.S. News and World Report if you can rate yourselves?).

The Myth of Low Acceptance Rates but Open Access

The nation is already wrestling, on a larger scale, with the issue of the rich getting richer by way of policies and instruments designed to advance a few far beyond most others. Hence, a certain wariness with regard to this application was in evidence before we really knew much about it. This wariness prepared the way for tremendous interest in the Coalition's first public announcement of its application, which would happen at the conference.

As much as we may strive to gain more applications so that admission rates are driven even lower, just as every college wants $100 million gifts despite already being richer than some sovereign nations — than some banks! — no one in America wants, publicly, to be considered rich or exclusive. “The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success,” as it is now officially known, must have been aware that even if everyone wants to be a member of an elite, elitist isn’t the way you want to be described.

It is also true that almost all college admissions people genuinely do look with some horror upon the world they have created— though not alone, we all understand — in which students from high-income families are so much more present in colleges than are students from low-income families, and exaggeratedly so in the most selective colleges. Now that David Leonhardt of the New York Times has embarrassed colleges with his columns pointing out the scant incidence of Pell Grant recipients at many of the most selective colleges, even college presidents, maybe even boards of trustees, are paying attention to the issue.

The fact is, high-income students are so much more avidly sought, catered to, sometimes paid for, and generally favored in the admissions process, and colleges have not been willing to own up to what they have done. So, despite evidence to the contrary, everyone now speaks of “access,” never quite admitting that their own sometimes pitifully low admissions rates proclaim, proudly, that they are inaccessible to all but the very few. And, with rare exceptions, as the number of applications has gone up at a college, the percentage of low-income students has gone down. If you admit 5–10 percent of your applicants, and take care of athletes, legacies, and princes and princesses, who wins the fight for the shockingly few places that actually remain available?

The Common Reaction

How can this problem be solved? The reflexive but not entirely innocent answer is that we must seek more applications. Will the Coalition Application ensure, or even make more likely, the possibility that the hoped-for increase in applicants will be low-income, or uncounseled, or otherwise disadvantaged? Or, perhaps more to the point, that they will be admitted even if they apply?

By the time we were gathered at San Diego, the Coalition had added public universities to their membership (select public universities, allowing only those that graduate at least 70 percent of their entering students to join, hence eliminating and in effect punishing the most accessible universities) and had found a new name that hit all the hot buttons: “Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success.” We all wondered, how will this application make colleges more affordable? How does it contribute to college success, however defined? How does it make these colleges more accessible? The Coalition was going to have to make their case.

The conference ballroom where the session was held was the biggest available, and the space was packed and buzzing. I sat through the previous meeting in the room — dutiful, informative, boring — just to ensure I had a seat. The presenters, all from Coalition colleges and universities (two private, one public) were familiar to the audience, reasonable, and low-keyed. The initiators of the project and leaders of the Coalition were not obviously in evidence.

The calm, almost beseeching presentation emphasized the fact that the Coalition was aware of opposition, that they realized that their application was a work in progress (though they would launch part of the platform in January, three months hence, a prospect that took the audience’s breath away), and that commentary from the floor was welcome.

To assuage suspicions that the Coalition had gone ahead without comment from high school counselors, we were told that a sizeable committee of high school counselors, the majority of whom work at private schools, had already been assembled and been consulted about the project. (I sat next to one of these counselors. He said that, thus far, he had only been asked to sign a confidentiality statement. Another said that he had taken part in a single conference call assembled two days before the application was announced the previous week. Another left the room intending to resign from the barely formed committee, already feeling misrepresented and unfairly used.)

When one of the spokespeople assured the audience that the new application was not an effort to boost application numbers, the crowd laughed. When she insisted that the new application would not fuel the “admissions frenzy,” they groaned. The only people in the room who seemed pleased with the prospect of this new application were the independent counselors, who expect that their incomes will double as they find new work curating the Coalition-specific portfolios, henceforth to be known as “lockers,” created by ninth graders trying to get another leg up in the admissions game. These new clients would not, we should understand, be poor students. That said, the most thoughtful independent counselors were embarrassed at the prospect of this impending windfall, knowing that the advantaged were to be given yet another advantage.

We were told that the idea for the application did indeed begin as an effort to ensure that, after the technical difficulties experienced after the 2013 Common Application rollout, a usable and reliable alternative instrument would be made available to students and admissions offices. The Common Application was also felt to be, by some of the progenitors of the Coalition, a monopoly (a charge officially made in a suit brought against the Common App by the company CollegeNET, which is to develop the Coalition Application) and they wanted more flexibility to design their own applications (without risking, we have to imagine, acting alone and abandoning the advantages of being in a league with powerful partners.) But, upon further thought, they told us, the Coalition came to believe that the new application would really exist to make their colleges more accessible to low-income students, more affordable, and more likely to lead to student success.

Affordability, Access, and Success: When Buzzwords Aren’t Enough

The presenters didn’t address the matter of affordability. In the past, the Coalition’s private colleges have attested to the promise that they meet the full need of all admitted students (though, one should understand that this does not mean that they are need blind — they could admit only one underprivileged student as long as that one’s financial need was fully met — or that their financial aid packages that don’t, for example, include parental PLUS loans.) The public universities have vowed that they are “affordable” to in-state students.

So, if the Coalition Application purports to increase affordability, perhaps in order to qualify for membership, colleges would have to revise their financial aid policies? But no, only promises of a new application platform, and not wider financial aid reforms, were made.

One should pause over that promise, since even a new application platform will not change the sometimes grim reality of the limited endowments, or the stinginess of state legislators, that affect most of the excluded colleges.

And success? Since only successful colleges are permitted to join, success can be assumed. But does that redundancy persuade us that some new successes should now be expected? In any case, the real question, ignoring the full range of puzzling claims raised by the embarrassing and reiterated trio of “Accessibility, Affordability, and Success,” was how, exactly, would this application make college more accessible to low-income students?

There were many — many, many — claims that the new application was going to “level the playing field.” Would it somehow rebalance income inequality in America? Or, provide real guidance in the many high schools without an adequate counseling staff (beyond the free advice on applying to college that the Coalition, like many other online services, offers)? Would it put books and computers in homes? Would it put to rest concerns about financing an education, or problems involved with leaving vulnerable homes and families?

No, but the Coalition will provide a new “platform,” a word offered almost as many times as was “level the playing field.” How would the new platform, and that platform’s attached locker, level the playing field?

“Unlocking” College Access

The locker, a word used in place of “portfolio,” would be made available in three months time, and was touted as the instrument that will ensure accessibility. Ninth graders, especially somehow underprivileged ones, will soon be able to stuff electronic lockers with whatever bric-a-brac they feel may be useful to them as they prepare for college.

When I think of the storage locker in my basement, and the storage facilities I pay for in New York, and my overflowing office, I am reminded of all the things I have stored so I don’t have to think about them. My ninth grade locker — a disaster of disorganized papers, gym shoes, old sandwiches — may tell you a lot about who I was, or am, but nothing I really want you to know.

But now, ninth graders will be offered this virtual place to store things, and even share them with whomever they choose — like counselors, teachers, and of course, colleges, who, no doubt, would love to get their hands on the names and email addresses of students early on so they can begin their relentless recruitment efforts. Does anyone think this is too early in high school for the obsession with college admission to be encouraged, or for recruitment to begin? Maybe college admissions officers — already beleaguered by a superfluity of applications — would pay attention, intervene, give advice, offer encouragement if they had the chance to look inside the lockers.

But what admissions office has the time to be personal counselors to random ninth graders? No one was volunteering her staff for this enormous task. Of course, paid independent counselors will be happy to clean up those lockers, and some private school counselors will find that there is pressure from parents to be the curators of the lockers. The under-counseled, however, those new to the college world, those who, thus far, haven’t been applying to the “right” colleges, or to college at all, will likely be, as always, left out.

What if we find the lockers filled with random, undigested, bits of information — papers, biology lab reports, math homework? Some students, we can guess who they are most likely to be, will get advice, put their art works and edited and revised writing in their lockers. But couldn’t they do that using the Common Application, albeit not in ninth grade?

The promise and the offer of the glittery toy of a new “platform,” repeated almost as much as was the promise of leveling the playing field, was that the availability of the locker would lead to reflection, to 13- and 14-year-olds “thinking about who they are.”

As the presenter said, no doubt sincerely, “I’m a dreamer.” The dream is that, because a platform exists, and an empty locker beckons, the students, especially those thus far least likely to apply to selective colleges, will become memoirists and philosophers. Not to say that students are incapable of philosophy — as one wise questioner from the floor pointed out, teachers in his school wanted the attention of their students so they could teach them about reflection and philosophy, and didn’t want more and earlier distractions coming from the need to perform for college applications.

Until the dream — or nightmare — of uploading the contents of our brain to a computer is realized, we will still have to take the lonely, difficult, and sometimes painful steps to reflect on who we are and what is important to us. We love computers for their capacity to make bits of information readily available, and because they let us tweet away publicly without the need for thinking. But will the locker really inspire reflection, the way, for example, a good essay question can?

If the Coalition Application is indeed an effort to transform students into philosophers and memoirists, what will be the motivating mechanism? All students surely want success, want what is best for themselves, but that has always been true.

How will they now actually find their way down the hallway to the locker? The presenters didn’t exactly know and solicited advice from the crowd, and on the spur of the moment, thought that maybe interns could be hired in each admissions office to spread the word about the Coalition Application. Or, community-based organizations may do the job.

But, new platform or not, don’t these very colleges, who have not, with some admirable exceptions, admitted and enrolled low-income students, already have the capacity to spend some of their millions and their time just simply recruiting these students? Can’t they — of course, they could — admit students differently so low-income applicants would have more real access? Can’t they think of ways of making themselves accessible without imposing a new application on the world?

The Loose Ends of the Coalition App

At the end of the presentation, the lines of questioners and commentators waiting at the microphones reached the back of the ballroom. In contrast to the spontaneous laughter and groans that emerged at various moments from the audience, those who had a chance to speak were measured and polite.

Did the Coalition spokespeople think that an unvetted, complicated technical system could safely be rolled out in a few months with no testing? Oh, good point! Won’t this application actually disproportionately benefit the more advantaged student? Well, we have thought about that but hope that the availability of these new tools will … level the playing field. Doesn’t it seem to you, as it does to so many of us, that the promise of access, affordability, and success is something simply “layered on top of” this new recruitment tool? If so, the coalition spokespeople said with all due solemnity, then we have failed. Why is the membership limited to an exclusive group of colleges and why are the most accessible colleges excluded? And why not, if this is really for low-income students, make it available only to low-income students? No answer. How can you impose this new application, even if it proves to be a good instrument, on hard working high school counselors without regard to the likelihood of ensuing complications? Well, it is, after all, about accessibility, affordability, and success.

There was no lack of sincerity on the part of the defenders, but they were put in the position of too frequently having to say, “well, we hadn’t thought of that”, or, “this is a work in progress.” The most heartening thing the presenters said was that, if this effort at enrolling more low-income students fails, the coalition would fall apart, so we had better make it work.

Perhaps members will do anything they can to actually take steps to increase accessibility in the interest of preserving their coalition and application. Of course, that could have been done without the new application; but if this is what it takes to force universities to do what I think many right-minded admissions people really want to do, maybe this will work. In any case, it is a venture that deserves our scrutiny, and, some day, possibly, our support.

Since the San Diego meeting, the Coalition has announced that it will delay the roll out of the locker from January to April.

You can find more honest advice about applying to college from education experts like Ted O’Neill.

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