The “Not-So-Common” Common App

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

For students who are planning on going to college or university, a major complaint is the complexity of the application process. Beyond being academically prepared, going to college requires that several steps be taken in order to be considered for acceptance. This, of course, gets more complicated if you want to apply to several colleges. Even more complicated if these colleges are in different states or are private institutions.

Back in the mid-1970s, the Common Application was created by 15 institutions to try and simplify the admissions process. The logic is simple: why not have just one application that can be directed at a particular institution (or institutions) so that students (and parents) have but one form to submit.

Today, with our computer and web-based electronics, this should even be simpler. In fact, over 400 colleges, including Yale and Princeton, subscribe to “The Common App” ( This seems wonderful enough, but there are two significant issues.

First, I ask why only 456 colleges? In the US, there are over 1,800 private, four-year not-for-profit and 600 public, four-year not-for-profit institutions. In addition, there are approximately 1,100 community colleges and 600 private, two-year institutions.

My math says over 4,000 public and private two- and four-year institutions in the United States. Why are only 11 percent of colleges and universities in the Title IV system using a college app? This needs to change.

Second, of the 456 colleges that subscribe to the common app, why do so many require additional application information, and sometimes complete applications, in addition? It seems that many of the colleges that use the common app put many other admissions requirements on students that the common app becomes of little utility. They end up submitting a separate application anyway for several of these institutions.

We’ve seen this before. After the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Congress forced the development of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) because many members did not like The College Board having a monopoly on the aid form (The College Board’s PROFILE). But even today, whereas a student must complete a FAFSA for financial aid, many colleges, most of which are private, require the PROFILE as well because it asks for additional asset information in order to calculate need. So, even though the free form is universal, many students have to complete a second aid form. This seems to be the case with the Common App, as well.

Quite simply, if we really want to simplify this chaotic system of higher education, one simple (partial) solution is for the federal government (and yes, the Canadian system should do the same!) to require all Title IV institutions (i.e., institutions that qualify for federal financial aid) to use one singular admissions form. I truly can’t believe the requirements for admission should be different for our institutions. In addition, the current Common App allows for additional questions by institutions (as long as they aren’t redundant). So why not?

This is an easy thing to do. Congress, simply create a new federal policy that requires institutions to use the Common App by 2013-14 or lose their Title IV status. You did it for financial aid (as imperfect as the FAFSA is). Do it for admissions.

Sometimes change is easy. It just takes political will to do it.

2 thoughts on “The “Not-So-Common” Common App

    1. Great point, Curt. Thank you. But do we just let Texas do it their way, and the other states do their’s differently, too? That’s what we did with data and look at what a mess that is.

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