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One-third of returning Common App members see a decline in applications

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Early application numbers have been a little slow to emerge this year. Despite intense interest in how problems with the Common Application (CA) affected the process, only a handful of colleges announced results immediately after deadlines.

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And those numbers appeared to suggest that issues with the Common App had little impact on students wanting to take advantage of perceived benefits in applying early to colleges with binding early decision or nonbinding early action policies.

Georgia Tech—a new Common App member—boasted of a 37 percent increase in early action applicants, while Duke reported a 26 percent increase in early decision applications. Among the Ivies Brown (2%), Columbia (5.4%), Dartmouth (6.7%), Princeton (0.5%), Penn (6.6%), and Yale (5.6%) posted modest increases in early applications received.

More recent reports came in from the Windy City, with both Chicago (6.7%) and Northwestern (14%) reporting healthy gains. William and Mary, Colorado College (43%), Boston University (15%), Texas Christian University, and Emory also reported increases in early applicants. And the University of Colorado Boulder—another first-time user of the Common App—is experiencing a double-digit increase in applications (additional early results may be found here).

On the other side of the equation, a few colleges confessed that their early returns were not quite what had been hoped. Williams College, down by 12 percent, clearly pointed the finger of blame at the Common Application.

“The Common Application should have had better testing,” said Dick Nesbitt, director of admission, in an interview with The Williams Record. “They have to be on their game or colleges will be running in another direction.”

And over the past few weeks, some of the bigger players have remained noticeably silent. Usually quick to promote increases in applications, Harvard and Stanford have declined, so far, to release numbers.

Part of the reporting problem may rest with lingering Common App issues, as many schools are still encountering difficulties with the quality of data received. Blank fields, missing information, unsigned forms, as well as transcripts and recommendations that never quite appeared make it hard to get a handle on completed applications.

For colleges that care about accuracy, this is a problem.

But data issues don’t fully account for the silence. Although the Common App publishes aggregate information in counselor newsletters, a breakdown provided to members shows that as many as one-third of all existing members actually may be experiencing decreases in the total number of applications received to-date.

Here are some of the numbers as of December 1:

  • Total Common Applications submitted (note that the CA does not track completeness—only payments): 1,462,938 (+18%)
  • New Members Only: 104,494
  • Returning Members Only: 1,358,444 (+10%)
  • Returning Exclusive Users Only: 791,929 (+6%)
  • Returning Non-Exclusive Users Only: 566,515 (+14%)

Member Up/Down

  • 319 (66%) Returning Members up, 165 (33%) down, 2 (1%) even
  • 97 (55%) Returning Exclusive Users up, 80 (45%) down, 0 even
  • 222 (72%) Returning Non-Exclusive Users up, 85 927%) down, 2 (1%) even

Some of the decrease may be due to simple demographics—the total number of high school graduates across the country is on a temporary decline.

And part of the decrease is no doubt a result of defections among applicants seeking an alternative application tool.

But for some exclusive Common App users lured by a significant discount (up to $2 per application), the numbers may signal a need to look for a back-up plan in the future.

Several, including Princeton, Tufts, Trinity College, Wash U, Juniata, Hampshire, Cornell, and most recently Duke, have turned to the Universal College Application (UCA).

Other Common App members have been quietly shopping the UCA and alternative application products for next year—just in case.

The next several weeks will be a huge test for the Common Application, both in terms of keeping up with the projected application load as well as producing anticipated numbers of applications for member institutions.

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