A New Standard for Online Applications?

A one-time contractor for the well-known "Common Application" to colleges has a new product targeting a broader selection of schools

Over the past decade, the online version of the "Common Application" has quickly risen to superstar status in the college admissions world. More than 300 top-tier colleges and universities use it and the nonprofit outfit recently processed its millionth online application.

Last month a new competitor, Baltimore-based ApplicationsOnline, entered the field. At first glance the company's product, the "Universal College Application," looks like a sibling of the online Common Application: its software is the same, its team of engineers includes some of the same members, and its founder is a businessman whose company worked as a technology contractor for the Common Application for nearly a decade.

New Application Has Broader Appeal

Yet there are some key differences. For instance, the Common Application caters to selective colleges and the application requires an essay and teacher recommendations. Joshua Reiter, president of ApplicationsOnline, said his company aspires to have large numbers of students at a large pool of public universities use his product. To accommodate those schools, the standard ApplicationsOnline product doesn't require the essay and recommendations.

"Why limit it to only colleges that require an essay and recommendation? That doesn't make you a better or a worse institution," said Reiter. "Our philosophy is, let's open this up and let there be no limit to the college membership."

ApplicationsOnline developed the original software for the online admissions and financial aid application for the Common Application back in the late 1990s and processed applications for them up until last year, when they lost their contract with the Herndon (Va.) nonprofit. In fiscal 2005, the Common Application paid Reiter's company $1.6 million, according to the nonprofit's tax filings.

The Common Application, which has 315 participating schools, has selected another technology vendor, AY Software Services of Fairfax, Va., which helped them launch an updated version of the application this summer.

A Growing Market

Reiter is tapping into what has become a burgeoning field. There are now online applications available for all types of specialized colleges and universities. And historically black colleges and universities, Jesuit universities, and a number of public universities have recently developed their own versions of online applications. However the online Common Application has become the most well known, with a wide range of schools, from Yale University to the State Univeristy of New York, offering the software to students through their admissions offices.

Reiter says he wants to expand the reach of the online application by making it available to the millions of students who typically consider only local or state universities during their college search (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/22/05 "Choosing the Right College").

He is entering the market at an opportune time. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the percentage of colleges reporting application increases jumped from 53% in 1996 to 75% in 2006. Students are also applying to more schools than ever before. In 1990, just 8.8% of students submitted more than seven college applications, according to research from the UCLA-based Higher Education Research Institute. By 2006, that had more than doubled, to 17.8%.

With those numbers, it's easy to see the appeal of a uniform application. The idea for a standard college application first surfaced in 1975 when a group of admissions directors from 15 schools sought a way to simplify the admissions process. They formed the Common Application association with the goal of creating a single application form that students applying to all of their schools could use. An immediate success, the Common Application's membership soon expanded to a select group of 100 schools by the second year.

A Holistic Admissions Process

Those accepted to the group were supporters of the "holistic admissions process," a method that requires a student essay and teacher recommendations, said Rob Killion, Common Application's executive director. The group's membership soared about 10 years ago when the board decided to open membership up to public institutions and implemented the online version of the application in 1998. There are now 315 schools signed up and the consortium is adding about 20 schools a year, Killion said. The organization plans to cap its membership at 400 schools.

Each school pays an annual membership fee of $750 to the Common Application consortium, in addition to a fee ranging from $4 to $5.50 for each application processed. Common Application's revenues were $3.95 million in fiscal 2005, with about $3.6 million from application fees, according to the tax filing. Revenues topped $4 million in 2006, Killion said.

As for Reiter, after learning last year that his contract had been terminated, he set to work creating the Universal College Application. His five-person company, which works out of an office across from Johns Hopkins University, retains the license to the software they developed for the Common Application. Reiter says he plans to use it to tap into the entire market of students applying to the 3,500 accredited higher education institutions in the U.S. "We didn't want to do another Common Application. We wanted to do something different," he said.

Promoting Diversity

Reiter said admissions directors he consulted told him they were eager to reach out to a more diverse group of students, such as first-generation college applicants and high-performing students from low-income homes. One way to do this, he realized, was to eliminate the requirement for an essay or teacher recommendation, which were sometimes barriers to those applicants to elite institutions. This would also enable his company to reach students applying to public universities, where applications often don't require such supplemental material. Schools that signed on would then have the option of requiring additional essays and recommendations.

His company launched the Universal College Application on June 27, initially reaching out to many of the same schools Reiter had worked with over the past decade. By early July, 16 schools had signed on, including Harvard, Duke, and Johns Hopkins. According to their Web site, the Universal College Application "promotes a more inclusive admissions application consortium college membership." Reiter declined to say how much he was charging the schools for membership and application processing fees.

Marlyn McGrath Lewis, Harvard's admissions director, said she chose to accept Reiter's Universal Application because she believes it has the potential to change the face of college admissions. "We have high hopes for it because we think it will help to blur the boundaries in this country where people seem quite stratified about what kind of college is appropriate for them," Lewis said. "We think it will make it easier for students to cross these boundaries."

Rivals Say They're Complementary

Of the 16 schools that have signed, 14 already offer the Common Application to students, but admissions officers said they don't see this as a conflict.

"We're hoping the two applications will complement each other, so not only do we get the students who apply to us through the Common Application, but we get those who apply through the universal application who otherwise might not apply," said Maggie Kennedy, communications director of John Hopkins' undergraduate admissions office.

The Common Application's Killion said he does not view Reiter's new endeavor as a threat. His organization does not require schools exclusively to use the Common Application, he noted.

"This isn't really anything new in our world. It's never been just us and we've never not had to overlap with other single applications from other schools," he said. "We don't see ourselves as being in conflict with them."

Time to Sign Up Schools

But Reiter still has a monumental task ahead of him. He needs to convince several thousand schools that they should offer the Universal Application as an option for their students.

Many states' public university systems, including ones in Texas and North Dakota, have already developed their own online common applications and may be reluctant to offer another application on their admissions Web sites. Also, many public universities were never eligible to join the Common Application group, so they may be unlikely to participate in a similar, standardized application venture.

Still, Reiter remains optimistic that his application will eventually catch on. He plans to spend the next year spreading the word about his product, reaching out to schools on an individual basis. "We're not looking to process a million applications in our first year," Reiter said. "That would be great, but we realize we're just starting out."

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