UP CLOSE: A Coalition for the future?

UP CLOSE:
A Coalition for the future?

Published on September 21, 2016

Karina Hernandez, who has worked as a college advisor at Moisés E. Molina High School in Dallas for the past two years, knows potential when she sees it.

Every year, out of the 2,000 students enrolled at the majority Hispanic, low-income Texas high school, Hernandez identifies a few students whom she thinks could hold their own in the often-opaque process that determines acceptance at elite universities. She tells them what any college counselor would: that there are schools looking for students with life experiences like theirs, that they could attend for comparatively cheaper and, in some cases, free of charge.

The problem is, they don’t believe her.

“When I reach out to students who I would consider to be competitive [applicants], and I ask them whether they want to apply to schools like Harvard or Yale, most look at me like I’m crazy,” Hernandez said.

A brand-new application platform is seeking to change that mentality.

The Coalition Application was announced last September as part of a joint initiative among Yale and more than 80 other elite colleges calling themselves the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success. Membership in the Coalition has expanded to more than 90 schools since last year, and the number is still climbing.

The goal was to create an application that would fundamentally change the way the college application process operates. It would encourage high school students — especially low-income ones — to think about college starting in ninth grade, rather than in the months before applications are due, and it would do so via a sleek, simple interface that would compete with the outdated, unreliable Common Application.

Representatives from the Coalition have highlighted features such as a simplified fee-waiver process, a messaging system for easy communication between students and college counselors and the “Locker,” a digital archive that allows students to upload noteworthy schoolwork for counselors to review, so that when they actually apply to college their senior years, they have a portfolio with files ready to submit.

(Elinor Hills)

“The idea of the Coalition App is to provide an opportunity, particularly to low-income students and community-based organizations, to engage students early in the process,” said Dick Nesbitt, director of admissions at Williams College, a Coalition school.

Yet in its first year, the Coalition App has been plagued by a host of issues, from the logistical — a shaky rollout caused almost half of the Coalition member schools to delay using it this year — to the existential, as it struggles to distinguish itself from the Common App. Critics have also speculated that the new platform may do more harm than good for low-income students by further complicating the application process.

Through criticism and uncertainty, Yale and other schools are forging a path forward, citing a commitment to increasing access to affordable education for high-achieving students of any socioeconomic background. Tomorrow, as hundreds of college counselors from across the country gather in Columbus, Ohio for the annual National Association for College Admissions Counseling National Conference, where the Coalition made its debut last September, proponents of the Coalition will have the opportunity to defend it anew.

But the question remains: Is this the admissions revolution many had hoped for?

OPTIONS, OPTIONS, OPTIONS

For the first time this fall, applicants to Yale’s next class of freshmen will have their choice of three different applications: the Common Application, the Coalition Application and the QuestBridge application.

The development marks a historic shift in the way Yale looks at applicants, and fits within an increasing effort by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to reduce barriers for low-income students applying to college.

Previously, QuestBridge applicants — high achieving, low-income students who were “matched” with Yale — had to fill out the Common Application in addition to the QuestBridge application, which discouraged some students who might have otherwise applied, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said. With the addition of the Coalition App, the Admissions Office has arranged for the QuestBridge application to stand on its own in the review process, meaning QuestBridge applicants are no longer required to submit the Common App.

The changes mean that the Admissions Office now has to compare students across three separate applications. However, admissions officials at Yale and other colleges using the Coalition App this year promised to smooth the transition by making sure the applications are as similar as possible for easy comparison.

Yale changed its questions on the Common App this year to nearly mirror those on the Coalition App. In the past, the Common Application had just one general question asking students to reflect on something the admissions committee might not glean from their applications; now, applicants can choose to answer two of three questions about community, learning and an activity they love doing — the first two of which are repeated verbatim on the Coalition App.

However, students using the Coalition App must also submit a digital document, image, audio file or video they are proud of from their Locker and reflect on it in the context of one of those two questions.

Quinlan said he does not anticipate that comparing applicants across various platforms will be difficult, adding that the two applications are very similar, with the exception of one Yale-specific question on the Coalition App. The Admissions Office is agnostic to the type of application a student uses, he said, reflecting the way standardized tests like the ACT and the SAT are used in the admissions process.

“Students should choose whichever application they feel allows them to put their best foot forward in the process,” he said.

Nesbitt said the similarity was designed to ease the transition into the platform for many students.

“We didn’t want to make it any more difficult for students, particularly students who are perhaps applying to schools that are not Coalition App schools,” he said. “We didn’t want to create something that would be completely different.”

A DIFFERENCE IN NAME ONLY?

But the efforts by the Coalition App’s creators to ensure a smooth transition have created a new problem: With so much similarity between the Coalition App and the Common App, was there really a need to create yet another platform for students and counselors to familiarize themselves with?

And if the two applications do not differ, how can colleges be sure that low-income students will feel the Coalition’s intended effect at all?

Emmi Harward, executive director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools, said the Coalition App did not deliver on the change it purported to bring to the admissions process.

“I don’t see it as being nearly as different from what the Common App offers as I had anticipated it would be, and the majority of the colleges’ applications that I have clicked through on the Coalition site look to be almost identical to the information that’s being requested on the Common Application,” Harward said.

She acknowledged that Yale is an exception, because its section of the Coalition App allows students to submit files from their Lockers in relation to the questions.

But other schools that have rolled out the new app have not capitalized on its new software capabilities. University of Florida’s section of the Coalition App, for example, does not involve questions that relate to materials students upload through the Locker.

(Quinn Lewis)

Andrea Felder, director of freshman and international admissions at the University of Florida, said that although the school is accepting only the Coalition App this year, it did not make any changes to the questions it asked on the application, nor does it plan to incorporate functions made possible by the Locker, as Yale is doing.

“We actually modeled it on exactly what we had on our own institutional application,” Felder said. “We would typically change the question each year anyway. We chose to go with the questions that were suggested by the Coalition.”

While many students in Florida will use the Coalition App this year, Felder said, those from out of state may need to be convinced that it is the best option. Still, the number of applications received this year is already up 32 percent compared to the same time last year, she said, which could reveal students’ eagerness to try out the new platform.

However, Katherine Cohen GRD ’97, founder of the college advising company IvyWise and a former reader in the Yale Admissions Office, said that for most students, using the Coalition App would create unnecessary work, since the majority of schools accepting the Coalition App also accept the Common App.

Only 15 schools using the Coalition App did not already use the Common App; these were mostly schools like University of Florida and the University of Maryland, College Park that used applications unique to their institutions.

Quinlan acknowledged that relatively few students will actually use the option in its first year: He anticipates that the “vast majority” of applicants will choose the Common App. Nesbitt offered a more specific estimate, saying he did not expect more than 10 percent of Williams’ total applicants to use the Coalition App.

IDENTITY CRISIS

If not different in format, the Coalition is supposed to be different in scope: the group has actively marketed its platform as a way to specifically help low-income students. But administrators involved deny that it is intended to be a niche application like the QuestBridge application, leading to confusion over who the Coalition App really serves.

Though Coalition leaders like Quinlan insist that the Coalition App is for everyone, wealthier students have yet to feel the need to switch over to an application that remains functionally identical to the one that already works for them. The result is an application that, in practice if not in name, fills a need felt only by low-income students.

Cohen — who offers paid college counseling services — said she recommended that her students not use the Coalition App this year, given that there are still many unknowns associated with the platform.

And Erik Michels, head of college counseling at Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma, Washington, where tuition exceeds $13,000 per year, had even less to say about it: this year, none of the 1,000 students at Bellarmine Prep will be using the Coalition App.

“It’s really not even affecting our students,” he said. “I haven’t gotten into it in very much depth.”

(Quinn Lewis)

Kaily Chou, a junior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago, said she had never heard of the Coalition App, even though her potential college list includes Yale, Cornell and Johns Hopkins — all schools that are part of the Coalition.

But Nesbitt said the Coalition App is available to anyone who wants to use it. He highlighted the platform’s streamlined fee waiver process as a potential draw for all students. He also said that having a large number of public universities using the same general application as many private ones was another reason why students should use the Coalition App.

Chou said that although she hasn’t used the Coalition App, spreading the college process over four years would reduce the time crunch students feel during application season.

“I think it would be better all through high school because a lot of the seniors I know are really struggling and stressed out to get it finished on time,” Chou said.

Sara Urquidez, executive director of Academic Success Program Dallas, a nonprofit organization that operates in public schools, said in the past her organization has had trouble convincing students to apply to Texas A&M in addition to schools on the Common App, since the two applications were so different. Texas A&M is a member of the Coalition.

However, Aba Blankson, the Common Application’s director of communications, highlighted the diversity of colleges and universities that use the Common App. More than 700 schools are registered with the Common App, she said, including over 200 that require no application fee.

While an overwhelming majority of Coalition schools also accept the Common App, Quinlan spoke to a potential divide between set of colleges that take mostly one or the other.

“The real decision is, ‘Does my college list include a lot of overlap with the Common App schools or the Coalition schools?’” he said.

TECHNOLOGY WOES

While questions of expanding access have dominated conversations about the Coalition App since its release, it also remains unclear whether it will fulfill one of the initial motives for its existence: dependability.

The story of the Coalition begins in October 2013, when days before the deadline for early applications to hundreds of colleges nationwide, the Common App did what panicked students had always feared it would: it crashed.

Yale had no choice but to extend its early application deadline by four days that fall, delaying its entire review process. But in the weeks and months thereafter, college admissions officers chatted informally about creating a new application to avoid being totally reliant on just one platform, which had proven itself to be faulty.

Quinlan was involved in early conversations about developing an application platform that would be more reliable and user-friendly. By May 2014, a small group of colleges including Harvard and Yale had submitted a proposal to software vendors outlining the specifications for the platform.

But in its first year, technological difficulties have already undercut the Coalition App’s promised efficiency.

When it was announced last year, the Coalition intended to have its platform up and running by January so that students could begin adding to their digital Locker. Some colleges would then begin accepting the Coalition App as early as July 2016.

The timeline for the rollout ended up being completely different. Annie Reznik, executive director of the Coalition, said the software wasn’t delivered to all member institutions until July 1, and the portal did not open to students until July 28.

Colleges have also had difficulty integrating the Coalition App into their existing technology systems. As a result, less than two-thirds of the group’s member institutions will be accepting the Coalition App this fall. In the Ivy League alone, Princeton, Brown, Cornell and Dartmouth have decided not to accept the Coalition Application for now, leaving it split down the middle.

(Quinn Lewis)

The University of Washington, where about 80 students from Bellarmine Prep apply each year, intended to accept only the Coalition App this year, but technological difficulties, coupled with an issue over the application’s disciplinary section, have pushed those plans back a year.

“Anytime you are doing something brand-new there is going to be an adjustment period,” Reznik said. “But I think the technology has rolled out really smoothly, and I think the interface is really user-friendly for students. I’m really happy where we are in a moment of year one.”

Fortunately for Yale, it has not had such problems. This year, with the help of local technology firm Technolutions, the Admissions Office has found a way to incorporate data from multiple application platforms into Slate, an application reading software used by more than 400 colleges and universities.

WAIT AND SEE

So far, the Coalition App has not led to the watershed moment in college admissions that it promised. But the jury is still out for its role in the future.

College counselors and admissions officers interviewed for this article agreed that the Coalition App would not replace the Common App, but would be another option for any student in search of one. The volume of applications that colleges will receive yearly through the new platform remains uncertain.

“I think the most remarkable thing is how little we’ve heard about it,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University and an outspoken critic of the Coalition since its inception. “Even when representatives from Coalition schools go to their high schools, they’re not talking about it. The rank-and-file admissions members seem to know little about what’s going on.”

Parke Muth, former associate dean of admissions at University of Virginia and an independent college counselor, said many in the admissions community still doubt that the Coalition App can bring about the intended effect for low-income students.

“Although it’s meant for that, the low-income kids may well be the last ones to use it,” Muth said. “There’s a feeling that that’s going to be a field day for people like me. People are going to be seeking even more help.”

Boeckenstedt said he was puzzled at how fracturing the college admissions process by rolling out a new application portal would increase access for low-income students.

He was also cynical about the Coalition’s purported emphasis on access, given the elite caliber of its member institutions.

“If you’re really about access, you don’t just pull together the institutions that have historically have been the worst at granting access and slap that label on them,” he said.

But Nesbitt said if the Coalition App makes it simpler for any low-income student to consider his or her college options more fully, then the portal would be doing what the Coalition had envisioned.

And though there were still many questions outstanding about the Coalition App, Muth, Boeckenstedt, Harward and Cohen all said the platform still had promise.

“We’re kind of taking a wait-and-see approach,” Cohen said. “We definitely don’t want to have students doing more work than they have to right now, but I do think that the Coalition Application is promising and we may have different advice next year.”

Muth said one of the Coalition’s best features was the flexibility it had in demanding a variety of content from applicants, which could change the general public’s perception that college admissions are just a “crapshoot.” If the Coalition App can allow students more opportunity to get their voices across, colleges could make more nuanced decisions, he said.

For Nesbitt, the Coalition App is still a kind of experiment.

“It will take a few years, I think, for this to catch on,” Nesbitt said. “It’s still relatively new.”

And until the Coalition figures out where it stands on key questions of its identity — a more reliable version of the Common App or something brand-new, a niche portal or one with mass appeal — counselors like Hernandez and Urquidez will continue advertising it, while other students will get away with ignoring it.

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