Reflections on 2021: embracing a changing college landscape
More than 45 years ago, a small group of colleges and universities got together to reimagine the college application process. One application, 15 forward-thinking institutions. The goal was to simplify the application process by leveraging the cutting edge technology of the time - the photocopier. Forty-five years later, Common App is now in the cloud, used by nearly a thousand colleges and universities, and more importantly, our mission is focused on pursuing access, equity and integrity in the college admissions process.
Reflecting on this past year and the amazing work the Common App team has accomplished, our mission has never been so important. It’s about leveling the playing field so that all students, regardless of background, have opportunities.
With the ongoing pandemic and the uncertainties it’s caused, we’re continuing to figure out ways for students to access, afford, and attain a college education. I’m proud of the initiative our team, in partnership with our membership, has taken to make changes over time to help students. Our work is not finished, but as we head into the new year, it’s worth highlighting what we’ve accomplished this year and where 2022 will take us.
The students who use Common App have changed drastically since 1975, which means we need to find new ways beyond just the application to expand access. This year, we piloted several initiatives to give students more agency when applying to college.
In March, Common App kicked off a direct admission pilot program that offered guaranteed admission to students in the states of Tennessee, Maryland, and Virginia. Approximately 3,300 students across these three states who created a Common App account and had provided enough academic information, but had not yet submitted an application, were selected to receive guaranteed admissions from a Common App member HBCU in their state. The three HBCUs who participated were the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Fisk University, and Norfolk State University.
Our goal was to connect students who are college-interested, but had yet to take steps towards enrollment. Sixty-six students responded to the direct admissions offer; this means they were interested in the opportunity and completed a Common App for the institution to claim their spot. Based on comparison with a control group, the students who received a letter were four times more likely to submit an application to the institution that offered them direct admission. Out of the 66 students who responded, 8 (12%) of the direct admission students enrolled at one of the institutions. These were students who had not yet submitted an application to any of our member institutions by March of their senior year.
We know that one of the barriers for students completing and submitting applications is fear of rejection. Although the pilot was small, its promise for creating greater transparency and reducing anxiety for students is great. We are piloting again this year with additional member institutions in other geographic areas to continue to gather data and information to help us determine how we might bring the pilot to scale.
Evolving the application
We are in our second year of the Evolving the Application initiative. Evolving the Application (ETA) is our annual process that examines and revises questions on the application that may act as barriers for students historically underrepresented in higher education. Last year, that process included the removal of the school discipline and military discharge and more. This year we have 2 focus areas: sex and gender, and fee waivers.
As we evaluate changes to next year’s application in these categories, we will continue to look at last year’s changes to gauge impact on students, which our data show to be positive. For the 2021-2022 application year, fewer than 40% of our more than 900 members chose to continue asking the school discipline question.
"I’m proud of the initiative our team, in partnership with our membership, has taken to make changes over time to help students. Our work is not finished, but as we head into the new year, it’s worth highlighting what we’ve accomplished this year and where 2022 will take us."
Affordability continues to be one of the biggest barriers to a college education. That’s why we teamed up with Scholarship America, the largest aggregator of private scholarships in the country. We ran a pilot with two Scholarship America scholarships, awarding over $1.2M to students. We reached out by email to almost 62k first-gen applicants or fee waiver recipients who were qualified for these scholarships based on GPA and/or career interest.
One of the scholarships led to an 88% YoY increase in Black applicants and a 62% increase in Latino applicants and a 93% increase in Black awardees and a 41% increase in Latino awardees.
We’ll continue to partner with Scholarship America in the new year to help even more students afford college.
Some help from Oli
In response to the impact of COVID-19 on students pursuing higher education, we have created several texting interventions to support some of the student populations that need support the most. This application cycle we’ve texted nearly 200,000 students, including community college transfer and low-income students with the help of an Artificial Intelligence bot named Oli.
Our partnerships with Mainstay (formerly AdmitHub) and College Advising Corps (CAC) have allowed us to be able to scale our work. Students that are escalated in the texting initiatives receive additional support from a live human being on everything from receiving additional tips to being connected to vital mental health resources.
Doing more with data
Thanks to a generous grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation we launched our data warehouse in October 2020, just in time to be able to share real-time application trends about declines in low-income and first generation college students applying to college.
By analyzing up-to-date application activity from our expansive data warehouse, we can uncover and amplify trends as they emerge. The importance of communicating these trends to our community has never been greater, as students and families grapple with the persistent impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last season, we sounded the alarm in response to troublingly low application activity among first-generation and fee waiver-receiving applicants. Through December 2020, totals for these applicant groups had declined relative to 2019–20. Through December 16 this year, we observed a 21% increase in the number of first-generation applicants relative to 2019–20, with first-generation applicants comprising a larger overall share of the applicant pool than in any prior season.
Our Data Analytics and Research team has also published a number of research reports, ranging from trends we saw during the pandemic, admissions plans, and trends among applicants.
Common App’s Next Chapter: More than an application
As you can tell, we've been busy! Over the last year, the Common App team has been working toward our vision to be the trusted source to access, afford, and attain opportunity for all.
We are prioritizing the many opportunities we have to create more equity in the process. Achieving our vision requires more than just incremental changes on the application; it requires reimagining the process. Revolutionizing the App is Common App’s effort with our membership, the counseling community, and students to transform college admissions by creating an equity-focused, next-generation application.
Our vision is a college admissions process that sparks joy rather than anxiety and is suited to evolve with the accelerating pace of change in students’ lives.
We’ve spent 2021 meeting with students, counselors and Common App colleges and universities to help us envision what this next generation application might look like. We’ll be ramping up our work in the new year.
We know the current admissions system creates too many barriers. We know that the inequities in our educational system are much bigger than the college application process -- not even limited to high school or college. They include early childhood education, college business models, and more. And we know the changes we’ve made so far are just one part of a much larger picture. But they are changes that we can actually make, and they have tremendous potential to improve the current system.
I look forward to the work the amazing Common App team and our membership will accomplish together in 2022!