Capstone College and Career Advising

The new college admissions coalition: Is it really about access?

October 12th, 2015 by

By: Jon Boeckenstedt

Last week, a group of 83 public and private colleges and universities made an announcement that stunned much of higher education: They were joining together to form “The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success.”

Although details were somewhat vague, the purported goal of the group was to encourage more students from low-income families to consider and apply to this group of colleges, which includes all eight Ivy League institutions and many other prestigious private and public universities.

The group plans a new application for admission and a collection of online tools to provide guidance and advice to students, as well as a portfolio tool for students to begin to collect materials to support the college application as early as ninth grade.

The collective response of high school counselors, independent consultants and college admissions officers at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in San Diego was, “Huh?” Followed immediately by, “What?”

Access for underserved populations is a popular topic these days in the admissions and financial aid worlds, so this was not likely the reception the coalition members expected. But an inspection of the details — or at least those that have been revealed — yields more questions than it answers, and even causes many to ask if this isn’t either counterproductive, or perhaps an attempt to introduce something else in the attractive wrapper of a popular topic.

Buzz was so intense that a session on a normally sleepy Saturday morning at the NACAC conference was moved to a ballroom to accommodate the interest. There, three representatives of coalition members, reading carefully prepared statements to a room of several hundred, indicated that the inspiration for this project was not really access at all, but rather a widely publicized dissatisfaction with the Common Application related to the rollout of a new platform in 2013 that had not been adequately tested and was riddled with problems. In addition, they said, there was great concern that Common App was a “monopoly” (a charge leveled in a recently-dismissed lawsuit against Common App by College Net, the group building the new coalition application) and was restricting what colleges could do with their admissions processes. “Our applications were not really ours,” said one panelist.

While acknowledging that this discussion has been two years in the making, the coalition also pleaded for help from guidance and independent counselors, claiming to be “only four days old.” Its representatives said repeatedly that “we don’t have all the answers.” Even so, the group plans to launch its tools in January, without doing any public beta- or even alpha-testing. The coalition only recently added a group of counselors to serve on an advisory board. The irony of launching an untested product that arose from dissatisfaction with another untested product was not lost on the crowd.

It is one of the dirty secrets of higher education that the most selective and prestigious private universities carry far less share of the load when it comes to enrolling low-income students, especially in light of the enormous wealth they collectively hold. Unfortunately, though, the coalition seems unable to answer how, exactly, an increasingly fractured application process is likely to help low-income students, who, already handicapped by a lack of information and guidance, seem confused by the current esoteric system, and whose lack of applications to these institutions is ostensibly the problem to be addressed.

News, of course, travels at different speeds in different communities. Several guidance counselors from the high school side indicated that they had already heard from the wealthy, driven, successful and college-educated parents of their ninth graders, who want to get an early start on the process and have asked how to start a portfolio. No one suggested they’d heard similar things from the target audience of low-income parents or students. In fact, when someone asked, “Why don’t you make this application and suite of tools available only to low-income students?” the response was effectively, “we’d never even considered that before.”

If the group of colleges seems like strange bedfellows, you’re right. The apparently non-negotiable requirement for admission is a 70 percent six-year graduation rate for freshmen, but private institutions in the coalition must also meet 100 percent of full demonstrated financial need. Public institutions must have “low” in-state tuition and offer need-based financial aid. This seems reasonable until you understand what this means, and the data lying underneath it.