The Common App Saw a Rise in Minority Applicants, but Does This Signal Equity in Admissions?
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- More students of color and first-generation students have completed the Common App.
- However, the Common App still has considerable equity issues to address.
- Application costs, ADA compliance, and language barriers can still present challenges.
- While the Common App promotes greater equity, socioeconomic obstacles remain.
Recently, the Common Application announced that between the academic years of 2013-2014 and 2021-2022, the total applications it received grew by 72%.
This is perhaps not surprising since the Common Application is perhaps the fastest-growing college application platform, now including over 1,000 member institutions from across the United States.
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However, this growth was not the most notable development related to the Common Application.
The Common App also announced that underrepresented minority applicants grew by 131% — with Black applicants up 138%, and Latino/a applicants up 129% — over the past eight years. Similarly, white and Asian American applicant numbers were up 48% and 71% respectively.
Beyond race and ethnicity, the Common App also reported that applications from first-generation students were up 90%, and applications from low-income students who requested fee waivers were up 110%.
Does a rising tide lift all boats? Has the Common Application solved the persistent, generations-long inequities of the U.S. higher education system?
Unfortunately, not even close. But it has helped.
How the Common App Closed Equity Gaps
As someone who researches college application systems and their complexity, I welcome a Common Application that allows students to have a similar application experience, no matter where they apply.
I have long bemoaned the fact that many state-level college application systems ask for the same information but in a different order. Or that institutions belonging to the same state system ask for different information altogether. Or that some institutions require four or more essays, whereas other comparable institutions only ask for one.
For the past six years, I have written about how college information is:
- Too confusing
- Too jargon-heavy
- Not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Not translated into languages beyond English
- Too inaccessible for first-generation college students and many prospective college students and their families
In fact, colleges tend to write their admissions application instructions between the 13th- and 16th-grade English reading comprehension level. And almost no colleges translate their admissions information into non-English languages.
In this regard, standardization may be good for the student and family experience since students and their support networks only need to "learn" one application. And then after one application is completed, applying to other institutions is much easier.
How the Common App Exacerbates Inequities for Students
However, broader adoption of the Common App to increase its visibility and its (loose) standardization across many different institutions is where the equity argument ends.
In 2021, I wrote a report that analyzed many different college application systems over a multiyear period, including the Common Application. In 2018-2019, the Common App was simple to read at roughly the ninth grade level, but was nearly three grade levels more difficult by 2020-2021.
The 2020-2021 Common Application was also not entirely ADA compliant and was not translated beyond English. And as someone with a Ph.D., the Common Application still took me 90 minutes to complete using a pseudonym and synthetic student profile.
The Common Application may be good, but it is far from perfect. It is still too long and not accessible for many people with disabilities and for English-language learners and their families.
Then there are the socioeconomic equity concerns.
The average college application fee is roughly $50, with elite institutions charging nearly $80. Ironically, elite, wealthy colleges are better positioned to support low-income college students through institutional grant aid, yet these colleges may be charging the highest application fees.
Here, institutions still charge application fees that deter low-income students from applying. And the Common Application has accelerated this socioeconomic inequity, even though the Common App has made it easier to get a fee waiver.
Beyond application fees, the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that adopting the Common Application steadily increases a college's percentage of out-of-state applicants.
But don't out-of-state students potentially diversify the student body and enrich the campus?
Possibly, but at a considerable cost to the student.
In an era where student debt is at the forefront of every discussion related to U.S. higher education, it seems like a poor time to incentivize students, many of them from low-income backgrounds, to apply to out-of-state institutions that will likely charge them higher tuition and fees — sometimes at three times the rate of in-state tuition and fees.
Consider the University of Florida, which charged $6,381 in tuition and fees to in-state undergraduate students but charged $28,659 in tuition and fees to out-of-state undergraduate students in 2020-2021.
Suddenly, a $30 or $40 or $100 application fee seems like pocket change to the out-of-state student, who also would not be eligible for state-level grant aid and scholarships if they left their home state to pursue an out-of-state college within the Common Application.
Unless states are willing to enter mass-scale tuition reciprocity agreements and allow students to receive state-level aid while attending an out-of-state college, it seems the Common Application is feeding the student loan debt beast that President Joe Biden has sought to tame.
The question here is whether low-income and first-generation college students understand this trade-off cost.
Yes, the Common Application makes applying to many colleges easier than ever before.
For low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college students, this ease is likely welcomed. Many minority students in our K-12 school system come from underresourced school districts without the many college-going supports that wealthier school districts can afford.
Yet, understanding how to apply for fee waivers can be problematic. Colleges still charge too much for applications, and their operations rely too heavily on application fees.
Out-of-state students may pay up to four times more than in-state students do (refer back to the University of Florida example). And even though the racial equity gap in higher education may be slowly closing, the socioeconomic gap continues to widen.
So does the rising tide of the Common Application lift all boats?
Perhaps the better question is, "Can students afford to be on the boat in the first place?"