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Applying to Penn is about to get easier. Or maybe more complicated. Such is the world of college admissions, in which every choice a prospective student faces—SAT or ACT? Early decision or regular decision?—doubles as a source of anxiety. As early as next summer, applicants will have another question to ponder: which application portal to use.

Late September brought news that a consortium of 80 colleges and universities, including every Ivy League institution, will subscribe to a web-based application platform designed to “streamline the admissions and financial aid processes and allow students to begin planning for college much earlier in their high school years,” according to the group’s website.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (CAAS) explicitly aims to improve access for low-income students. It has also positioned itself as an alternative to the Common Application, which is used by 517 schools—including Penn, which intends to continue using it.

“College admissions has changed dramatically, especially from a technological standpoint,” said Penn Dean of Admissions Eric Furda C’87, who has served on the board of the Common Application for the past five years, including a term as president. The formation of the CAAS comes two years after technical malfunctions in the Common App’s web interface bedeviled thousands of high school seniors in 2013, causing many universities (including Penn) to extend their early-decision deadlines in response.

The CAAS seeks to “recast the process of applying to college” by providing free tools, including an “online virtual locker” that will be available to students throughout their high school years, a “collaboration platform,” and an as-yet-unnamed application portal, which will be developed by CollegeNET, an Oregon-based software company. Application fees will be set by individual member schools.

CAAS member schools are required to have six-year graduation rates exceeding 70 percent, and must “offer an affordable education, promising low-cost, in-state tuition for residents of their state (for public schools) or meeting the full, demonstrated need of admitted domestic students (for privates).”

Furda, who emphasized that the new application remains in its formative stages, was cautious in assessing its potential benefits. “There’s this view that because of the crisis of the Common Application, something else could be created that could not only form a backstop to the Common App, but also drive other good,” he said. “The hard part is the implementation of it. What will it really look like?”

He observed that any form of umbrella application involves tradeoffs between the specific concerns of individual institutions and the common priorities of the larger group.

“Perhaps there’s going to be a willingness to sacrifice a little bit more of the custom [priorities] for the common” ones, he said. “After all, what’s going to make this easier for any kid to apply for college—particularly low-income students? Make it easier for them; don’t make it harder. And so that could be the number of questions, that could be testing requirements, it could be fee waivers, it could be a lot of pieces that, if a group of schools work in concert with one another—particularly schools that have this much sway in the imagination of American higher education: some of the most selective schools, highest graduation rates, best financial aid—a lot of good could come of it.”

Some observers have questioned the wisdom of adding another application to a process whose existing complexities arguably tilt the playing field in favor of privileged applicants who can turn to guidance counselors and admissions consultants for help. Furda indicated that his office will be agnostic regarding an applicant’s choice of portal. He pointed out that, since 2009, Penn has also accepted applications through QuestBridge, a nonprofit that matches academically qualified low-income students to 36 prestigious American colleges and universities, including six Ivy League institutions [“Gazetteer,” July|Aug 2009]. Furda likened application platforms to utility companies; as long as his office receives the data applicants want to submit, he said, it doesn’t really matter who delivers it.

“The mission of the Coalition Application and the mission of the Common Application is the same,” he added. “It’s basically about equity and access in higher education. They’re saying the same things; they’re going to go about it in different ways.”

As of press time, the CAAS planned to open its virtual locker and collaboration platforms to all students in April. The group expected some schools to begin using the new application portal this summer. More information can be found at coalitionforcollegeaccess.org. The best resource for information about applying to Penn remains the University’s admissions website: admissions.upenn.edu. —T.P.

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