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Is Changing the Application Process Enough to Improve Access to Selective Colleges?
No, But It’s a Start

Last month, a consortium of 83 selective public and private universities unveiled a plan to build a new college application system. The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success plans to develop a “free platform of online tools to streamline the experience of applying to college.” The most notable part of this platform would be its “virtual locker,” a portfolio in which students could store different types of content—from creative work, to class projects, to teacher recommendations—beginning in ninth grade. Though many of the details of the Coalition’s plans and platform still remain vague, chief among its goals are for these new tools to help more well-qualified, low-income students learn about, apply to, and attend selective colleges and universities.

There is much to be lauded in the Coalition’s plans. College admissions at selective institutions is mired in outdated processes and traditions. Some of the primary indicators used in the admissions process are unreliable predictors of success, and research shows that SAT scores in particular are correlated with race and other socio-economic factors. A number of schools have made changes to their admissions process in recent years to try to capture more holistic or qualitative aspects of students’ potential. Hampshire, Smith, and many others have dropped standardized testing requirements, while other institutions have devised innovative ways to capture less tangible student qualities via multi-media portfolios and personal statements. In a particularly successful effort to recruit more low-income and first generation students, Franklin & Marshall College has emphasized non-cognitive characteristics such as work-ethic and growth mindset in admissions; these changes, combined with a number of other efforts to attract and financially support more underrepresented students, have tripled the share of Pell Grant eligible students in Franklin & Marshall’s freshman class without compromising average GPA or graduation rates.

Equally exciting is the fact that the coalition represents a group of selective schools that have engaged in a joint effort to increase access for low-income students, in part by developing new tools to evaluate applicant fit along factors that may be more equitable than, for example, standardized test scores. Certainly, following through on this promise requires some large scale changes to each individual institution’s recruiting, admissions process, financial aid budget, and student support strategy. Reshaping a common application intervenes at only one of many moments in which low-income students encounter obstacles towards applying to, enrolling in, and graduating from institutions of higher education. However, if selective and high performing institutions are to increase the number of low income students they graduate, they will be most effective if they work collectively to align incentives, share best practices, and define data and policy needs. The Coalition seems like a promising space where this can happen.

While the Coalition’s plan shows some promise, there are a number of reasons to be cautious about its likely effects on access. For one thing, it is not clear that the new platform will be used effectively by underserved schools, their staff, or their students. It may be more likely, as some critics have pointed out, that a virtual locker will disproportionately allow well-resourced students, for whom the college admissions process is already a definitive part of high school, to begin building a competitive applicant profile in their freshman year. Other salient critiques question the feasibility of admissions committees reviewing non-standardized materials, the criteria for inclusion into Coalition, and the exclusion of a model for community college transfers (which may change). Most fundamentally, changing the application does little to address the very substantial problems that many schools face in recruiting, paying for, and supporting low-income students, especially while facing pressure to maintain their rankings.

In my view, we should take the proposed platform for what it is: a pilot that indicates a commitment amongst a group of schools to change an outdated and inequitable process. If the coalition is committed to collaboration, innovation, and access, then its plans need to be better rooted in research into how to promote access and affordability specifically for low-income students. For example, recent research shows that low-income students have less access to desktop, laptop, and tablet computers at home than their wealthier peers. Other studies indicate that low-income families may prefer to receive information about college via the mail rather than online. How can the coalition build or promote a platform and college planning tools that take these disparities into account? Economists Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner have shown that high-achieving, low-income students are more likely to apply to competitive schools when they are provided with personalized information about institutions and facts about net price. The Coalition’s new platform will allow schools to provide personalized outreach to students with portfolios, but a low-income student must choose to use the platform—and therefore consider herself a potential candidate for a selective school—in order to receive this outreach. How can the coalition collaborate to scale interventions that prompt low-income students to use their tools in the first place? Finally, a recent study found that providing admissions officers with information about applicants’ high school backgrounds increased admission rates for low-income students. Innovations such as the Coalition’s, that aim to increase access for these students, could focus on ways to ensure this data is available and is included in students’ applications.

The Coalition for College Access, Affordability, and Success’s focus on collaboration and innovation in admissions is exciting, and is part of a larger set of reforms around admission—including changes to the SAT, FAFSA and the Common Application—that aim to improve the admissions process, often for low income students. This is no easy task, and as the Coalition and other organizations innovate, their work must remain grounded in research into what works for increasing low-income student interest in and access to higher education.

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