“These are the times that try men’s souls.”  Thomas Paine wrote those words, using the pseudonym Common Sense, in the winter of 1776 during a particularly bleak time in the American struggle for independence, but the quote (with the coeducational addition of “and women’s”) could very easily have come from a college admissions dean or college counselor in the fall of 2013 using the pseudonym Common App.

It’s been an interesting fall in the college admissions world, thanks to the Common Application’s rollout of CA4.  The myriad of technological issues associated with the new CA version has created headaches and increased stress for colleges, counselors, and students.  At the NACAC conference in Toronto I left the session where I had presented to encounter a line running the length of the Convention Center waiting to get into an adjacent room for the next session.  For a moment I was jealous that another session would be more of a draw than mine until I realized that the line was for a session devoted to Common App issues.  

There are a couple of occupational hazards associated with writing about ethics.  There is a fine line between being a moralist, someone concerned only about the behavior of others, and an ethicist, someone concerned about the ethical implications of his or her own behavior.  In addition, it is easy to see the glass as always half empty, to focus only on what is missing or what is flawed.  I am aware that I am prone to both, which is why both as an ethicist and as a college counselor I strive to be an asker of questions rather than a provider of answers.

That being said, I have to admit that I have been generally proud of the way our profession has handled the CA4 fiasco (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) this fall.  If it is true that the measure of an individual’s character is how one deals with adversity, it is also true for corporate entities such as professions.  We show our true colors in tough times, and this fall we have largely kept our exasperation to ourselves, kept the sniping and finger-pointing to a minimum, and kept our focus on how to make the best of a bad situation.  That’s stoic at worst, and heroic at best.

If we need any excuse to pat ourselves on the back, all we need to do is look at the parallel universe inhabited by the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.  The similarities between CA4 and Healthcare.gov have been striking, with both being hyped, “new and improved” product launches that have demonstrated the limitations and even dangers of reliance on technology.  I can’t be the only one who has joked about both being designed by the same IT people. 

But whereas the incompetent rollout of Obamacare has been made worse by those who have done their best to sabotage implementation by filibustering, defunding, and making political hay out of the problems,  most of us have bitten our tongues, trusted that the folks running Common App were trying their best to make it work, and focused on helping students navigate the new system.  A number of colleges extended early deadlines (which they should have, following the ethical principle that you shouldn’t punish someone for something they can’t control).  To my knowledge, no one in our profession has called for closing down the college admissions process because of concerns about CA4.  Of course, being more functional and professional than Congress is a low bar to clear and not much to be proud about.

What are the bigger lessons to learn from CA4?  One is that “new and improved” technology may be new, but it’s not necessarily improved.  Technology makes our lives easier—except when it doesn’t.  We take the benefits of technology for granted, but the launch of both CA4 and Healthcare.gov show the importance of having an infrastructure in place that has been fully tested and vetted.

On a related note, this fall has been a psychological boost for those of us who are slow to adopt the latest technology.  My office went into the fall intending to move to electronic submission of school documents, but decided we weren’t ready to pull the trigger until some internal issues were resolved.  Within a couple of weeks our decision to submit using paper had moved us from “behind the times” to “cutting edge.”

The larger question is whether power over the college admissions process is being concentrated in the hands of the few.  Common App, the College Board, and Naviance are an oligarchy with enormous control over the college application process.  Is that desirable?  None of them are evil--well, maybe the College Board (A JOKE!)—but does having power in the hands of a few vendors and corporations/membership organizations serve the public?  Eric Hoover has a fascinating article on the growth of the Common App to over 500 members in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education.

The problems with the Common App this fall also should lead us to revisit the question that should always be on our mind when we design the application process.  What are we trying to accomplish?  Are changes in deadlines and requirements driven by convenience for us or because they make the process better for students?  Does the college admissions calendar and process encourage students to make thoughtful decisions about their futures?  The Common Application was originally designed to make it easier for students to apply to multiple colleges, but have we made it too easy?  Does Common App lead students to apply to more schools?  Has Common App become a brand, a means for colleges to increase application numbers, rather than a tool to benefit students?  Is applying to college a Goldilocks process, neither too easy nor too hard?


P.S.  In my previous post I made a reference to “games played in the name of enrollment management.”  Shortly after I published it, I received an e-mail from Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul objecting to my generalizing about enrollment management as if must be associated with questionable practices.  It is a point that Jon (whom I respect greatly) has made in his own writing, and he’s right.  Enrollment management is a neutral concept, a positive force for colleges and universities, and the kinds of games I was objecting to are products of forces independent from enrollment management. I thank Jon for calling me out privately and gracefully, and apologize for the broad-brush portrayal.  My larger point was that all of us are hurt whenever any of us engage in practices that damage public trust in what we do, and my generalization might prove that point.