The Coalition application’s potential for admissions and its limits

(Education Dive) By Tara Garcia Mathewson–

Two Massachusetts colleges will accept the new Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success’ application next year, but each decided to try the new approach for different reasons.

Northeastern University is practically a small city of its own inside Boston, welcoming nearly 20,000 students from all over the world. Just a few years ago, it only accepted the Common Application, giving its students a single way to apply to its programs. But in the middle of October 2013, web developers were faced with the threat of needing to build a whole new application from scratch. The Common App almost failed them.

“We never wanted to be in that position again,” said Elizabeth Cheron, an associate dean at Northeastern who oversees the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. When the Coalition announced its plan to develop a new application, Northeastern jumped at the opportunity to diversify its admissions methods.

Wellesley College, a small, all-female institution 20 miles outside of Boston, used the Common Application in 2013, when it had its technical problems. But a low-tech option would have worked for the admissions office because of its small applicant pool. Joy St. John, dean of admission and financial aid, said her institution signed on with the Coalition primarily because of its potential to expand access.

Wellesley has been trying to increase its proportion of high-achieving, low-income students for years now. The Coalition is providing another way to reach them. So far, the nearly 100 colleges that have signed on to the new application model have worked together to find students who were largely invisible in prior years. Both Cheron and St. John said there have been conversations about group opportunities to travel and recruit nationally. Member institutions are sharing best practices and working together to get the word out about the new admissions model.

This model — and, specifically, a digital locker that allows students to store a range of content throughout high school — is expected to help a broader group of students better prepare for college admissions.

Cheron already advises sophomores and juniors to start thinking about the admissions process early. She tells them to keep their best papers and record their volunteer work in a running list so it’s all top of mind when they sit down to fill out their applications. Vicky Rivera, director of college and career counseling at Boston Green Academy, likes the locker for this reason. She knows students should be saving this work. Now they have a place to do so.

The locker also lets students store multimedia projects they complete in high school and any other work they think may help them complete their applications. When it comes time to actually apply, they have to choose what to include based on the guidelines identified by each school. Wellesley will not be accepting any multimedia content from students’ digital lockers at all.

“At Wellesley we want the two applications to be exactly equal,” St. John said. “We aren’t allowing application materials through the Coalition App that you can’t submit through the Common App.”

Because Northeastern allows additional materials from students applying through the Common Application, students using the new application will have the same opportunity. But either way, students will still be able to use what they’ve stored in the digital locker to inform their essays and their other application materials.

The key is maintaining a level playing field, which schools that joined the Coalition seem to agree on.

“We don’t want the tool to create inequity,” St. John said.

Many Coalition colleges have decided to hold off a year to see how initial implementation of the new application goes before putting their prospective students through it. In the meantime, the digital locker is already functional, helping students become more thoughtful about the admissions process — and member institutions may see the benefits of their more concerted outreach efforts in their 2016 applicant pool.