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Common App organizational review ignores important insight

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Minutes after the Common Application launched the latest edition of its online application on August 1 of last year, Independent Educational Consultants (IEC’s) in China, Korea, Singapore and across the world began opening accounts and walking through the process of learning the new software.

Without benefit of “beta” testing or live instruction on how the application would work, IEC’s were among the first to experiment with and develop workshops for students as well as colleagues on how to manipulate the new text boxes and deal with smart technology that didn’t always function as well as it should have.

IEC’s immediately picked up problems in language and instructions, and they made recommendations both via the Common App Help Desk and directly to administrative staff. And within days, many of these recommendations were acted upon and changes were quietly made without acknowledgement of or appreciation for the dedicated professionals who tirelessly worked to smooth the rough edges of an entirely new system.

And thanks to the tenacity and collegial spirit of many IEC’s, school counselors who reported to work later in August could build on knowledge and expertise shared online and in public forums.

"This is kind of a 'fan e-mail'--my first, at that! I am writing to thank you for all of your comments in the past month,” said one counselor in response to technical information shared about the new Common Application. “You have been an invaluable resource during the craziness of the new CA4."

Last month, the Common Application Board of Directors, whose membership is largely composed of representatives of private colleges and small independent high schools—no IEC’s, held an emergency meeting to discuss the launch of the CA4.

While acknowledging that this has been an “uncharacteristically difficult year,” the Board had a “highly productive discussion” and voted to undertake an independent review of Common Application organization and technology.

“To be clear, this is a board initiative, but The Common Application and Hobsons’ staffs have welcomed the outside review and are fully cooperative,” according to an email sent to members on December 26, by board president, Thyra Briggs, of Harvey Mudd College.

Within days, Censeo, a DC based consulting firm with experience related to federal procurement and supply chain management, put together a set of surveys—one for Common App member colleges and one for counselors.

In addition to the 517 member colleges and universities, 50,000 school counselors were surveyed. Students were left out of the project because they lacked the “perspective” of being able to compare the old Common App with the new.

And although both Censeo and the Common Application declined to say how counselors were selected and where the mailing list came from, one message came through loud and clear—IEC’s were not welcome to share their insights or participate in the project.

“HECA’s 780 members work with over 18,000 seniors a year,” commented Gael Casner, president of the Higher Education Consultants Association. “In fact, this fall we were in the trenches with seniors during the day, during the evening and on weekends as they learned to navigate the new Common Application. We celebrated when all green checks aligned correctly and scrambled for answers when they didn’t. Our first-hand experience with the Common App this year and in previous years places HECA members in a unique position to offer valuable input into the survey being conducted by Censeo.”

It’s worth noting that the 12-question survey sent to counselors, assumed the possibility that IEC’s would be among those surveyed, as the first question allows the respondent to identify as such. Yet with the exception of a few retired school counselors who have new careers as IEC’s, none were knowingly sought out for their opinions.

“We would love to offer the opportunity to CA to access our membership for feedback and our staff will work with theirs to make it happen,” suggested Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a membership organization representing 1300 IEC’s serving nearly 55,000 students annually. “The vast majority of our members have been advising college-bound students for over 10 years and largely come out of school counseling or college admission positions—the very folks who could add perspective given the professional hats they’ve worn.”

Despite whatever message the Common App is trying to convey, IEC’s continue to work with high school students, school counselors, and colleges as valued professionals with a broad view of the entire admissions process.

And they are being acknowledged for what they bring to the counseling profession. The Colleges That Change Lives recently included Gisela Terner, an IEC from Wisconsin, among the 2014 Counselors That Changed Lives—a first for the organization and the industry.

It’s too bad that biases best left in the last century continue to get in the way of an honest review of technology and an organization in need of constructive criticism, advice, and a new perspective.

“We are advocates of any system that eases the college application process for our students,” concludes Ms. Casner, on behalf of HECA and IEC’s in every corner of the world.

This is the first in a series of three articles.

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