Technology Research

Building a (Case for a) Coalition

With another application season nearly behind us, next year’s race to gain or retain market share of admissions applications is heating up. As a new option enters the fold, many students and parents may find themselves with more questions than answers about which application platform to use. Should they stick with the Common App, a time-tested and familiar solution for institutions and applicants alike, or should they invest the time and resources to curate an entirely new “portfolio” as required by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (the Coalition) in its new application platform? It’s widely known that in October 2013, the Common App went down at the worst possible time. Since then, the Coalition has squarely positioned itself as a competitor. In response to the question, “Why would a college or university use more than one application platform?” the Coalition points to the risk of technology failures as the leading factor, even above providing an additional way for colleges to differentiate themselves. To help quantify this specific incident’s impact on the Common App brand, Eduventures looked at social sentiment data dating back to 2008. As illustrated in the chart below, overall mentions of the Common App generally build in the summer months and culminate in a spike of activity around application deadline day, October 1. In 2013, the effect of the massive outage can be plainly seen. It is worth noting that while overall sentiment for the brand is generally negative, so is the perception of the college admissions process in general. Even so, you’ll notice a dramatic sense of negativity towards the Common App, above and beyond the generally negative baseline of the college-bound population.
Social Sentiment Towards the Common Application Brand, 2008-2016
Social Sentiment Towards the Common Application Brand, 2008-2016Source: Crimson Hexagon

A Common Response

In its effort to capitalize on this sentiment, the Coalition’s initial announcement, communications, and subsequent launch seem to be almost entirely lacking in information about how its new platform will perform as well as—or potentially better—than the proven Common App. In a letter to stakeholders that coincided with the platform launch, Coalition Executive Director Annie Reznik stated that her top priority is, “providing clear, transparent communication.” To that end, our conversations with school districts, colleges, standards bodies, and their technology implementation vendors highlight some very important technology topics that appear to be missing from the Coalition’s marketing and communications. These include:
  • Limited support for Naviance used at high schools, including no API-based transfer of transcripts, letters of recommendation, and supporting documentation
  • A lack of integration with the ERP/SIS platforms used at colleges and of support for IMS or PESC admissions and ePortfolio XML file formats and data standards
  • No clear service-level agreement for the platform, or any guarantees about system availability and uptime during peak application periods
To the Common Application’s credit, it has taken steps to learn from its past mistakes. It has also capitalized on the buzz surrounding the Coalition announcements with a few announcements and platform changes of its own. In the last year, for example, the Common Application released a Mobile App for students, made massive changes to the nonprofit and product websites, and made platform changes that allow students to roll over their admissions data year after year. It hasn’t, however, announced specific plans to address the issues that led to the creation of the Coalition in the first place. It also has not indicated whether this year will be substantially different in terms of platform enhancements, fixes, and resource planning to ensure the system remains stable now that a viable alternative exists.

A Portfolio by Any Other Name

The clear differentiator between these two brands is the portfolio component—at least until the Common App decides to follow industry trends and launch one of its own. Eduventures has reviewed nearly 30 different portfolio vendors that are used in college admissions, academic instruction, and workforce placement. We believe this system for collecting student work in anticipation of the college admissions process looks similar to existing products on the market, but the new user experience that CollegeNet has built for the Coalition doesn’t hold a candle to more robust products, such as the one from Portfolium. Through its portfolio, dubbed “The Locker,” the Coalition is attempting to redefine the student admissions experience. “The Locker” includes instructional videos that encourage students to collect all manner of academic work starting as early as ninth grade. The documentation makes it very clear that students are in control of privacy, security, and choosing who to share their curated portfolios with outside the platform. Still, the Coalition and its member schools have not yet published a clear rubric or evaluation criteria for what makes for a “good portfolio.” The Coalition’s documentation lacks any information about what types of artifacts are relevant to the college admissions process, which artifacts applicants should attach to the application, and how members will assess them to support an admissions decision. Therein lies the problem. From the student, parent, and guidance counselor perspective, this is going to create a new college admissions arms race, similar to the test prep market. Companies and admissions advisors will pop up to coach families on how to build a better portfolio without a clear goal in mind of what colleges actually want to see. Eduventures is optimistic that the next round of product announcements from the Coalition will address some of the concerns above and provide clear expectations for students about how to use its portfolio in lieu of or in addition to the traditional application form.  

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