The Coalition: Is It Truly a Better Alternative to the Common App?

shutterstock_242098309When it debuted in 1975, the Common Application—or “Common App”—started a process that would ultimately revolutionize the college application. No more filling in repetitive fields over and over and over. No more writing entirely separate personal statements. Granted, not all schools accepted this application, and many required customized essays in addition to those included in the Common App, but students could now submit more applications to more schools, more easily.

This year, for the 2016-2017 application season, there’s a new game in town. A game that offers an alternative to the Common App. A game that claims to make elite and prestigious colleges more accessible. A game that has a long, extremely descriptive name. This year, the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success—“the Coalition”—has stepped up to challenge the Common App.

The Coalition developed out of two key frustrations with the Common App. The first is the riskiness of “putting all the application [eggs] in one basket,” so to speak. In 2013, the Common Application performed an update that resulted in major glitches, causing major delays and setbacks for admissions offices nationwide. The second is the fact that students must scramble to gather their application materials within a compressed time period, often leading to an incomplete picture of applicants’ strengths and accomplishments.

The Coalition offers two solutions to these frustrations: first, it simply provides another choice, outside the Common App, for applying to multiple schools at once. Second, it not only permits, but encourages students to begin thinking about and assembling college admissions materials as early as freshman year.

As with anything in higher education, there are supporters and critics of the Coalition. Supporters applaud the program’s mission to make the college application process more accessible to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Critics, however, worry that the Coalition will merely increase the number of applications submitted to its members—elite schools with already low acceptance rates—and lower their acceptance rates even further.

Below are a few basic facts about this brand new college application program, along with arguments from each side of the debate. Whoever is right or wrong may not matter right away, however, since only 60 of the 90+ Coalition member institutions will be using the application for the 2016-2017 application cycle (many of which will also accept the Common App).

Fact: students can begin the process of applying to college in 9th grade.

Supporters say: Opening the application process early on can make the process more manageable and give students a better shot at developing a complete, well-rounded application. By thinking about college admissions (where they might want to go, what they might want to study) and taking preliminary steps toward developing their application already in 9th grade, students can avoid a sudden panic attack come junior year. Additionally, encouraging students to think about college early on can make them more mindful of their academic and extracurricular record over a longer period of time—which is precisely what colleges will be looking at.

Critics say: The Coalition pushes students to start thinking about college admissions already at age 14. These are students who have just gotten to high school, and already they are expected to be thinking about college. This draws out the stress of the application process—which can begin already in 10th grade, with the PSATs—yet another year.

Fact: More nontraditional items (i.e., items other than prescribed essays or letters of recommendation) will be permitted in the application

Supporters say: Permitting alternative application materials enables students to highlight their strengths, no matter what those strengths are. For instance, a student might be an incredible actress but a mediocre writer. Using the Coalition, she can submit a video that better represents her talents and passions than an essay ever could.

Critics say: Now that students can submit a whole array of materials, expectations are higher than ever before. To be a competitive applicant, you now not only need to write a stellar essay and score well on a standardized test, but you probably also need to make a video, or draw a picture, or include a recording of yourself singing the national anthem with a mouth full of marshmallows. Anything to stand out. And who is going to guide students to generate these top-notch portfolios? Likely, a whole new industry will be born, and better-off students will once again have the advantage, because they’ll have the resources to put together a sleek, refined package with the help and guidance of paid professionals.

Fact: Students can invite parents, counselors, recommenders, and others to collaborate on the materials in their Locker and application.

Supporters say: A student’s asking for and receiving help from mentors is right in line with how we collaborate in this digital era. Collaborative applications such as Dropbox or Google Drive are already standard practice, so by participating in this collaborative process, students tap into a familiar skillset that will be useful (and necessary) later in their lives.

Critics say: Once again, the upper class wins out. Wealthier students can afford better collaborators, who will help them to assemble better portfolios. Yet, even for students at large, there is the risk of “too many hands on deck.” This can result in a student’s feeling even more overwhelmed by the already-stressful application process, or worse: the application may essentially not be student’s own.