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A Group Of Elite Colleges Could End The College Admissions Monopoly

Some are beginning to think the admissions system disadvantages poor and minority students.

Posted on October 2, 2015, at 12:50 p.m. ET

Susan Walsh / AP

Akira Lee fills out a college enrollment application at her school. The schools was hosting a "sit-in" to get high school students who might not otherwise go to college to apply to college.

A newly-formed coalition of 80 of the country's most selective universities is looking to change how students apply to college, tipping the scales toward poor and minority students.

The effort, experts say, has the potential to end the virtual monopoly of the Common Application, the electronic system that now dominates the American college application process. The Common App, a nonprofit, was targeted by an antitrust lawsuit last year.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, made up of colleges ranging from Harvard and Yale to Indiana University and the University of Minnesota, announced Monday that it planned to create its own admissions portal, as well as college planning and portfolio tools, geared towards helping low-income students gain equal footing in the college application process.

The primary goal, representatives for the coalition said, is to inject change into a process that has remained relatively stagnant since the introduction of the Common App in 1975. And they want to do it in a way that would help poor students who did not have access to high-quality counseling, encouraging them to begin exploring options as early as 9th grade — as many students in prep schools do — and guiding them through the complex process of putting together an application.

In the name of lowering barriers for low income students, the new application portal would offer colleges things that the Common App doesn't yet do well — namely an ability to customize and experiment with application criteria, formats, and deadlines.

The University of California system, for example, renowned for serving high-achieving low-income students, has its own application, one that doesn't require applicants to submit teacher or counselor recommendations and lets them self-submit transcripts. For students in a public school system that has one of the worst counselor-to-student ratios in the country, those changes can make a difference.

"The big push is to be able to innovate and try something new," said Ashley Pallie, the associate dean of admissions at Pomona College, a coalition school. "The portal is really about want to put individuality back into the admissions process — giving colleges much more control over what an application to an institution might look like."

The application used for the prestigious QuestBridge Scholar program, a national program to match low-income students with elite colleges, could serve as a model for schools looking to create applications that highlighted the needs and talents of underserved students, Pallie said. QuestBridge asks applicants essay and short-answer questions about diversity, their communities, and family support systems.

Isaak Cuenco-Reyes, a QuestBridge scholar at Yale, said he saw potential for the coalition's new application portal to make a difference for low-income students.

"When you have something like the Common App that holds a literal monopoly on the college process, that leads to having a monolith of thinking about how to prepare for college," Cuenco-Reyes said. That old way of thinking, he said, often disadvantages low-income students and those without access to college counseling.

Questbridge only "matches" its students with a small, select group of schools that provide significant financial aid for poor students. In that way, the coalition is also similar: it said it would accept more members, but only those who met stringent requirements for financial aid and high graduation rates.

The coalition said its schools would still use the Common App, alongside the new admissions portal, for the foreseeable future. But admissions experts speculate that the Coalition's efforts could, eventually, pose a challenge to the CommonApp, which is now used by more than 500 schools and has so far withstood efforts by both for-profit and nonprofit competitors to unseat it from its dominant place in college admissions.

"It's tough to make any predictions, but this effort has got some great, high-profile schools behind it," said Terri Devine, the director of college admissions at the Francis Parker School, a prep school in San Diego. "The admissions landscape is ready for some change, and this could be the thing that moves some things forward."

The Common App has faced a growing backlash in the past 3 years: plagued by glitches that have forced colleges to push back their application deadlines and seen as unresponsive to students' needs. Colleges and high schools alike, Devine said, view the Common App as "big, and cumbersome, and not historically very responsive when things go wrong. But so far, they keep adding more colleges anyway."

.@commonapp Okay honestly this is turning into a complete shit show

Francine Block who has been an independent college consultant for 30 years, said it was too early to tell whether the coalition would pose a serious threat to the Common App, but that it would likely spur the nonprofit behemoth to change. "I'm sure the Common App will be looking over their shoulder at this, however," she said. "They're going to be thinking, 'How does this impact us, and what do we do to keep up?'"

There have been challenges to the Common App's dominance before; the Universal Application now serves 46 schools. But the Coalition's application would likely be far more of a threat, thanks to the formidable backing of Ivy League schools and some of the country's most prestigious public universities, like the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.

"The Universal Application tried to give the Common App a run for its money, but they haven't had the legs to make an impact," said Divine. "But [the Coalition's portal] has the big guys behind it." That means, she said, "It has a much better chance."

Seth Byofsky, an independent college counselor, said he had "high hopes" for the Coalition and its ability to provide an alternative to the Common App.

"I will venture a well educated guess that success or failure will depend largely upon where the money flows," Byofsky said, "and whether colleges will follow the money in the hope of making more of it for themselves."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.