“Someone needs to ask questions, probably you.”  That was part of the first message I saw upon checking e-mail as soon as my transcontinental flight landed on the tarmac in San Diego on the Tuesday prior to the NACAC Conference.  The correspondent was a loyal ECA reader with a suggestion for the next post, forwarding me a NACAC Exchange discussion on the announcement the previous day that the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success will offer a new application platform beginning next year.

I’m not sure I’m the right person to be asking questions or that I will ask the right questions.  I am concerned rather than exercised by the existence of the Coalition, and readers of the blog know that I am far more comfortable in the clouds than in the weeds.

It is not an understatement to say that the Coalition was the major topic of conversation during NACAC.  A Saturday morning session devoted to explaining the new initiative was packed despite having moved to a larger room.  That session was not as contentious as expected, but ended with a line at each microphone hoping to comment.  I had the distinct feeling throughout the conference that folks affiliated with the Common Application were overjoyed to find themselves not the center of attention.  Within the college application platform “family,” the Common App suddenly finds itself the “good child.” 

Does college admissions need another application platform?  I can argue both sides of that question.  In a perfect world I’d like to see the application process simplified, with students able to use a single application for all schools.  But I also worry about the Common Application becoming too common, too big.  In its quest to increase membership and market share, I fear the Common App has lost its moorings, core values such as the belief in holistic admission.  The same danger exists for organizations like NACAC.  Is there a point at which membership growth compromises mission?

The Coalition, on the other hand, is smaller and more homogeneous, but runs the risk of being elitist and exclusive.  There are 125 colleges and universities that meet the Coalition’s dual criteria for membership, a six-year graduation rate of 70% and a commitment to meet full need (or, in the case of public members, affordable tuition for in-state students).  As of the conference, 83 had signed on.

I appreciate the Coalition’s expressed goal of increasing access, but I am not alone in feeling that the access piece feels like an add-on.  The Coalition began as a reaction to the technology problems encountered by students and colleges two years ago after the Common App introduced a new technology infrastructure.  That debacle opened a lot of eyes to how easily the college admissions process could ground to a halt as a result of the power concentrated in a few players (Common App, College Board, Hobsons).

I applaud the Coalition’s desire to refocus the college process away from being transactional and toward “reflection and self-discovery.”  I like the idea of replacing the personal essay with writing that is more reflective.  But given that some Coalition member schools will accept the Common App as well as the new application, I have visions of answering whether students are better off writing the essay for the Common App or submitting materials through the Coalition’s Virtual Locker portfolio feature.   On that note, is it my imagination or were 75% of the vendors at NACAC highlighting their portfolio “products”?

What I find most worrisome about the Virtual Locker is the underlying assumption, that admissions frenzy is caused by the short window of time in which the process takes place.  I’m not sure that’s correct.  Will having the ability to begin collecting admission materials as early as ninth grade abate the frenzy or accelerate it?  Will it give an additional edge to the already privileged, and will it lead to a new admissions-related industry, the Virtual Locker Monitor/Consultant (“We Unlock Your Future”)?  The Coalition has announced that it will delay the start of the Virtual Locker until next summer, and that seems like a smart move.

The broader question is whether starting the college search process earlier is desirable, or even possible.  The acceleration of the application process into the early fall rather than the winter has already compromised much of the educational and developmental value of the senior year in high school.  How early do we want kids obsessing about college?  Should college admission be the primary goal of a high school education or the product, the natural next step?

I am probably ultra sensitive about this issue because I work with boys.  My students are bright and motivated, but the X factor in their intellectual growth and development is maturity.  Each spring when I meet with juniors, I ask, “Has it hit you yet that next year at this time you will be getting ready to go someplace else?”  Over the course of the spring I can see the consciousness of the junior class change.  The students I meet with in February or March, who are the first to make appointments and presumably the most ready to think about college, almost universally answer “No.”  By April, the answer is “It’s starting to,” and in May the answer is “Yes.”  Several years ago I was in a Board committee meeting where a Lower School parent asked whether waiting until the junior year to talk about college was too late.  Before I could respond, a university professor who was the father of two boys already in college spoke up.  “Yes it is, “ he said.  “But any earlier is too early.”

I hope the Coalition will help us have a conversation about whether we have a college admissions process that serves the public interest.  Do the college search and application processes measure readiness for college?  Should the college admissions process be a bridge from adolescence to adulthood?  Are we measuring/valuing the right things and are we asking the right questions?

Perhaps most important, are we sending the right messages?  The Coalition includes many of the nation’s leading public and private colleges and universities, and as a result has the opportunity to shape discussion within the profession and to educate the public.  I would love to see the Coalition make a strong statement asserting that applying to college is about self-discovery rather than just getting in somewhere, that authenticity is more important than resume-building and gamesmanship, and that the value of college lies in the experience one has in college rather than where one is admitted.