Changes to Common App Promote Greater Equity in College Admissions

The Common App continually revises its tool to simplify and demystify the college application process, advance equity and inclusion, and broaden access for marginalized students.

Updated May 5, 2022

Changes to Common App Promote Greater Equity in College Admissions
Admissions Opinion & Analysis
Photo by sshepard / iStock Unreleased / Getty Images

  • Millions of students begin their college journey through the Common App.
  • The organization aims to promote access to higher education, especially among underserved populations.
  • New and planned changes to the Common App involve gender identity and eligibility for fee waivers.
  • The Common App is experimenting with direct admissions programs that proactively admit low-income students who've yet to apply.

The Common Application, better known as the Common App, is rolling out new tools, initiatives, and progressive policies to advance equity and social change in higher education.

New versions of the application planned for next year and beyond address issues such as gender identity, student diversity, and affordability, leaders at the Common App told BestColleges. Those changes will impact how more than a million students apply to college and impact the composition of student bodies at almost 1,000 member institutions — including every Ivy League school.

"Colleges join the Common App because they want to expand the diversity of their applicant pool," Emma Steele, Common App's senior public relations manager, told BestColleges.

Increasing Diversity a Primary Goal of Common App

The Common App, a nonprofit organization, has helped students navigate the often bewildering world of college admissions since 1975. Today its website offers students a wealth of information about college admissions, financial aid, and member colleges. It also provides resources for high school teachers and counselors and college transfer advisers.

It's by far the most popular college application system, easily distancing rivals such as the Coalition Application, the Universal College App, and QuestBridge.

Not every major college accepts the Common App, however. Georgetown University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Los Angeles are among top-tier institutions that don't.

Staff at the organization told BestColleges they aren't certain why these colleges haven't signed on, and they're far more excited about the growing pool of member institutions. Last year, another 50 colleges joined the group, more than 20 of which are minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

“Last year, another 50 colleges joined Common App, more than 20 of which are minority-serving institutions.”

Those additions result from concerted efforts to recruit MSIs and further diversify their overall applicant pool, according to the organization. Over the past eight years, MSI members have experienced a 7% increase in applications from underrepresented groups.

It's one example of how increasing diversity is baked into the very mission of the Common App, which says it's "committed to removing…barriers and improving application rates for students who have been historically underrepresented and marginalized in higher education."

To further advance that mission, the organization also runs an initiative called "Evolving the Application," an annual series of conversations with key stakeholders — students, counselors, and college admissions officials — to guide continual revisions in the service of diversity and access.

As the potential college-going population continues to change, so too must a key tool designed to pave that pathway.

"One of the biggest challenges we face is operating in a system that was designed over a century ago for a very different landscape," Sadie Harlan, project manager at the Common App, told BestColleges.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is operating in a system that was designed over a century ago for a very different landscape.”

— Sadie Harlan, project manager at the Common App.

Roughly a third of Common App applicants are first-generation students who often lack familial and school-based guidance on how to navigate the complex admissions waters. Just last year, about 700,000 seniors who opened Common App accounts never completed an application. Harlan said first-generation students are more likely than non-first-generation students to create an account but not submit an application.

To patch leaks in that pipeline, the Common App is committed to making the tool easier to use and more inclusive. The organization continually revises aspects of the application that can seem confusing to students or needlessly burdensome.

For future application cycles, the Common App will broaden options related to gender and sexual identity. In 2022-23, it will include "Mx." and "other" options for counselor, parent, recommender, teacher, and adviser prefix options. The following year, it plans to add "X or another legal sex" to the legal sex choices.

"As an equity-focused organization," its website states, "we don't just want to remove barriers within our application, but also use our resources and data to advocate for change at a systemic level."

Simplifying Eligibility for Application Fee Waivers

To some observers, it may seem counterintuitive to think something as seemingly insignificant as an application fee could discourage students from applying to college. After all, attending college normally involves a considerable financial investment, even for those families receiving ample aid. What's $50 or $60 compared to the overall cost of attending for four years?

But it turns out it matters a great deal. According to IPEDS data, the average application fee is $50. For highly selective colleges, says the Education Trust, that figure is $77. Multiply those costs by six, roughly the average number of colleges Common App users apply to, and it adds up quickly.

Low-income students do, of course, often qualify for fee waivers. In fact, in 2020-21 Common App member colleges granted $105 million in need-based waivers to some 502,000 applicants.

Yet the process of attaining a waiver isn't always so simple. Determining eligibility can be a confusing process. Criteria often aren't always found in one place.

“In the 2020-21 application cycle, 39,000 students who were low-income but did not identify as such paid at least one application fee. Another 55,000 students who likely qualified may have abandoned the application because of expected fees.”

As a result, in the 2020-21 application cycle, 39,000 students who were low-income but did not identify as such paid at least one application fee. Another 55,000 students who likely qualified may have abandoned the application because of expected fees. Ten percent said application fees influenced where they applied and admitted they hadn't heard of the Common App's fee waiver feature.

What's more, the waiver process requires school counselors to confirm eligibility. Given the relatively large number of students that counselors in under-resourced schools have to manage, it's easy to imagine they wouldn't have in-depth knowledge of each student's financial circumstances.

Common App's research found that almost a quarter of fee-eligible students weren't able to obtain a counselor confirmation and that responses pertaining to eligibility were inconsistent among students and counselors. For example, counselors knew students were living in subsidized housing in only 7% of cases.

To simplify matters, the Common App is removing the set of eligibility criteria and replacing it with a simple yes or no question. It's also adding a space where counselors can provide more context for each student.

"It is our hope that streamlining the questions reduces the confusion and would result in more students using the fee waiver," said Don Yu, Common App's vice president for policy and advancement.

'Revolutionizing' the App

Whereas the "Evolving the Application" effort assesses the existing application to resolve issues affecting marginalized students, another initiative called "Revolutionizing the App" seeks to "transform college admissions by creating an equity-focused, next-generation application," Evette Becker, project manager at Common App, told BestColleges in an email.

The former focuses on short-term adjustments while the latter envisions what's possible on a longer horizon.

Recent changes involve language and essay prompts. The Common App is working with researchers at Making Caring Common, a project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that, among other priorities, seeks to use the college admissions process to promote positive character traits among young people. New Common App questions pertaining to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, enable students to demonstrate perseverance and tenacity.

"One of the things we're working on with Making Caring Common is trying to pilot really simple, easy questions that will better demonstrate a student's life context, and in doing so, shed some valuable light on the other components of their application, but do that in a way that doesn't create an additional burden for the student," Harlan said.

“One of the things we're working on ... is trying to pilot really simple, easy questions that will better demonstrate a student's life context”

— Sadie Harlan, project manager at the Common App

Another effort under the "revolutionizing" banner is direct admissions. First piloted in Idaho in 2015 and tried in a few other states since, direct admissions take a proactive stance on the admissions process by accepting students who are academically qualified but who have not yet applied.

Last year, the Common App launched a direct admissions program with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Fisk University, and Norfolk State University, three historically Black colleges and universities. Emails from the colleges and the Common App told 3,300 low-income students they were accepted based on their qualifications, 66 of whom completed a Common App application. Eight ultimately enrolled at one of the participating HBCUs.

"It's a really great way to flip the script on college admissions and give students more agency," Steele said. "So instead of the anxiety of applying and not knowing if you're going to get in, that's taken away with direct admissions."

For the 2021-22 cycle, the Common App expanded the pool to six colleges. Steele said it's too early to know the final results of this second round, but the initial findings look promising.

Expanding the overall pool of college applicants, especially with a goal of diversifying that pool, seems like a worthwhile endeavor. Yet it bears considering that more applications means more selectivity on the part of the institutions, which may further discourage students from applying in the first place.

Steele, however, dismissed that concern, focusing instead on the great diversity of options within the Common App's universe and beyond.

"There's a lot of anxiety around applying to college for students because they're only thinking about these institutions that have less than a 5% acceptance rate," she said. "But that's just not the case for Common App members. There are so many institutions to choose from."