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Alternative to Common App sees surge in use

U. keeps Common App, but some peer institutions turn to UCA after last year’s technical glitches

As deadlines approach for many higher education institutions’ early admission programs, more elite universities have decided to allow applicants to use either the Common Application or an online alternative following widespread technical problems last year for the Common App. But the University has decided not to sign onto an alternative platform to the Common App for this admission cycle, said Dean of Admission Jim Miller ’73.

Last year, the Common App — used by over 800,000 applicants last admission cycle — faced a number of glitches amid the launch of its new website. These technical problems prompted numerous universities to delay deadlines for their early decision and early action programs. While the University did not delay its early decision deadline past Nov. 1 last year, the Office of Admission gave extensions to students on an individual basis.

Several peer institutions have also joined a competing application service called the Universal College Application. Cornell and Princeton joined the UCA last fall, and the University of Chicago, Rice University and Vanderbilt University all joined the UCA this year. Harvard has been a long-time member of the UCA. These universities continue to allow students to submit their applications via the Common App.

Some admission experts said a higher number of universities have turned to the UCA in the past two admission cycles as a precaution against the technical glitches faced by the Common App’s website last year.

Shawn Felton, director of undergraduate admissions at Cornell University, said Cornell joined the UCA before the regular decision deadline last year because of the problems with the Common App website.

“The advantage of having a second application has been illuminated after last year,” Felton said. “The Universal College Application will stay in place for this reason. In life, we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket.”

Though the Common App and UCA have similar online formats, applicants can choose the topic on their long essay for the UCA but not on the Common App, said Bev Taylor, founder and president of the Ivy Coach, a New York-based college consulting firm. The Common App no longer lets applicants select their essay topic, she added.

“A lot of creativity was lost” when the Common App decided to eliminate the topic-of-choice on its application, Taylor said. The Common App also does not allow students to upload their essays, which means they cannot use special characters or visual illustrations in their essays.

But for now, the University has not joined the UCA. The Admission Office considered joining the UCA during the last admission cycle but decided to maintain a common “entry point” for all applicants with the Common App, Miller said.

“It seems as if the Common App has righted the ship,” Miller said, referring to the website’s technical problems. It would be more complicated for the University to support two separate application systems online, he said, adding that the Common App does a good job providing access to a wide range of applicants.

Though the overall number of UCA member universities pales in comparison to the number of universities on the Common App, the UCA now boasts eight of the top 20 national universities in the U.S. News and World Report rankings as members.

Felton said several hundred Cornell applicants used the UCA last year, but more students may use the platform this year, adding that there was no difference from admission officers’ perspective between the two application systems.

“Last year, there were tremendous problems (with the Common App), and I think there needs to be a backup system,” said Steven Goodman, an admission strategist at the college consulting firm Top Colleges.

The UCA launched in 2007 by ApplicationsOnline LLC, a private company that had previously helped run the Common App’s website, said Joshua Reiter, the company’s president and founder. But when the Common App decided not to renew its contract with ApplicationsOnline, the company opted to design a competing service for college applicants.

“I hope other people use us not because the alternative isn’t good but because of how good we are,” Reiter said.

The UCA has never experienced a website crash like the Common App did last year, Reiter said, adding that the platform also offers strong customer service.

Aba Blankson, director of communications for the Common App, acknowledged that the website experienced notable technical problems last year but added that the organization hired a consulting firm to fix these glitches.

The Common App also faces an antitrust lawsuit launched in May by CollegeNET, a company that provides technology services to universities, Inside Higher Ed reported at the time.

According to CollegeNET’s filing in the lawsuit, the Common App charges colleges that exclusively use its website $3.75 per application, but colleges that use an additional system, such as the UCA, are charged $4.75 per application. CollegeNET also alleges that the Common App has an agreement with member universities that these institutions will not charge a lower application fee in a separate system than the fee they post on the Common App’s website. CollegeNET charges that this alleged collusion and pricing model has caused the company to lose 229 customers, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Blankson said the Common App’s pricing model was changing but did not provide specifics on how the model would be revised. “What we heard back from our members was that the structure wasn’t meeting their needs,” she said.

Miller said the pricing model for the Common App did not affect the University’s decision to refrain from joining the UCA.


A previous version of this article stated that Aba Blankson, director of communications for the Common App, said the Common App's "customers" said the pricing structure was not meeting their needs. In fact, she said the Common App's "members" said the pricing structure was not meeting their needs. The Herald regrets the error.


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