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November 5, 2021

Applying to College Isn't What It Used to Be

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AssessmentSchool Culture
The Impact of College Applications (thumbnail)
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November 1 was a big day for high school seniors interested in attending college: it was the “early action” application deadline for a significant number of schools, including Georgetown, Villanova, Harvard, Yale, and the Universities of Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Tennessee, and Virginia. There are now a seemingly endless variety of application categories—restrictive early action, early action, and early decision—in addition to the traditional regular and rolling admissions options with which the Boomers and Gen X are most familiar.  
Put simply, applying to college isn’t what it used to be. And while there is plenty of attention paid to the broad policy issues of college accessibility and affordability, my recent personal experience helping my son with his college applications has given me some new insights into how these broader policies to increase college attendance and completion play out (or not) in the mundane and often overlooked part of the admissions process: the beginning.  

A Perplexing Process

On the surface, the application process itself is straightforward. Rather than offering individual applications with unique sets of information requirements, data uploads, and essay questions, most universities now accept two standardized application platforms: the Common App and the Coalition App. The Coke and Pepsi of electronic applications are differentiated by their web design, their essay questions, and the schools that use each service. (Most of my son’s time this fall has been spent on the Common App.) In theory, this standardization helps promote application efficiency so that students write the same essays for multiple schools. That may have once been true. But I’ve noticed that most of the schools my son is applying to require up to three additional essays, undermining the whole point of the standardized application.  
It gets worse. Many colleges ask students to provide a major of interest or even select a specific school within the university in which they plan to enroll. As a former undeclared liberal arts major, I find the notion of a 17-year-old selecting their career path before they’ve even graduated high school funny. To make matters worse, colleges do not provide information on how binding these choices will be if accepted. Adding to the confusion, the same major might be offered as both a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts and offered in different schools at the same college. A student has to decide, for example, whether to select the data science major at a university that earns a B.S. in the school of engineering, a B.A. in the business school, or a B.A. in the liberal arts college. It can all feel a little overwhelming when trying to explain the nuance between a B.A. and B.S. degree to a teenager and how a major could earn a degree in either. But, hey, pick one now because the clock is ticking (and you can’t leave the field blank).  
I could go on about the odd disparities in academic reporting requirements, technical glitches on these sites (the text from every cut and pasted essay was bolded), and poorly asked questions that prompt confusion from increasingly frazzled students (and their parents). And why do some colleges require transcripts be sent directly from the school while others allow students to self-report by uploading the records themselves? Even worse, others require students to manually enter their entire high school transcript with the general subject, name of the course, the level, and grade for each semester, which becomes a tedious two-hour exercise in data entry.   
But wait, there’s more! In the testing section, the application asks whether the student took the SAT or ACT but then in the data fields that follow, it instructs the applicant to input their SAT score (and specifically notes that the number cannot be higher than 1600). For students, like my son, who took the ACT, this presented some head scratching interpretation and philosophical musings. Why only reference the SAT scores and not the ACT? Why the explicit mention of 1600 but not 36 (the maximum ACT score)? Was this a glitch or are the schools using this application only interested in SAT scores on this page? Is there another page to input the ACT score? If he enters his two-digit ACT score will the system accept it and allow him to proceed? Will colleges recognize an ACT score in an SAT field? Or will some artificial intelligence system shunt his application to the doubtful pile because it mistakenly calculated that he essentially failed the SAT? These are quotidian questions in the larger scheme of things but take on life and death import that students and their families must confront in the moment as they set out to enter through the gates of higher education. 

Last year, just over 50,000 students applied to the University of Maryland, generating $4 million in application fees for the Big 10 school.

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Speaking of admissions testing, much has been made about the trend of colleges making testing optional. Schools that have waived the requirement to submit an ACT or SAT score have seen a surge in applications. This is bad news for the testing companies (but a boon to colleges).  

The Pay-to-Play Barrier

The second-to-final step in the application process is the payment—or what I’ve come to know as application-fee roulette. I (and probably many other parents) have been so focused on the annual (and total) price of attending college that little thought is given to the very first cost—the application charge. (There is a process by which students from low-income families can request an application fee waiver but it isn’t automatic even for students eligible for free- and reduced-price meals and has to be done well in advance of the application deadlines.) Generally speaking, the application fees per school are about the same, approximately $44 on average. But it is the exact figures that make the "reveal" so interesting. The University of Florida’s $30 is a pleasant surprise. The University of Maryland’s $75 is not only the highest we’ve encountered, it’s an added insult given that we’re state residents. In-state tuition but not a break on the top-end application fee?  
Last year, just over 50,000 students applied to the University of Maryland, generating $4 million in application fees for the Big 10 school. This fall, the University announced the successful completion of its Fearless Ideas fundraising campaign that raised $1.5 billion and doubled the school’s endowment fund. $334 million will go to support students through scholarships and other awards. Here’s a thought for Maryland and most other colleges: moving to optional testing has encouraged a surge in college applications; doing away with application fees entirely would be even more impactful for low-income and prospective first-generation college families. Try following the suit of colleges that have already canned the application fee.   
In the end, I recognize our family’s good fortune to be able to afford the fees and to be able to figure out (as best we can) the application glitches together. But I’ve seen firsthand how seemingly little problems and supposedly nominal costs that fly under the radar at the operational level can impede the broader policy goals of increasing access and affordability to college for all students.

David Griffith is the former Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations. In this role, he lead ASCD's efforts to influence education decision-making at the federal, state, and local levels and the development and implementation of the association's legislative agenda. He played an instrumental role in promoting multimetric accountability and a whole child approach to education, as well as being a national speaker and resource expert on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Prior to joining ASCD, Griffith was the director of governmental and public affairs for the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE). Previously, he served as a congressional aide to two Representatives on Capitol Hill. In addition, he has worked on numerous political campaigns, was the legislative and grassroots coordinator for the American Arts Alliance representing the nation's leading nonprofit arts institutions, and traveled the country doing advance work for the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay.

He received his bachelor's degree from Villanova University and his master's degree in education from the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

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