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The Common App Board of Directors looks for answers

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At a December “off cycle” meeting of the Common Application Board of Directors it was decided that an "independent" review of Common App technology and organization would be undertaken by the Board with the help of a third party consulting firm.

According to a notice from the Common App, the project would be used to generate “an authoritative, independent expert report identifying the root cause of this year’s issues and making specific recommendations as to how we can improve and regain the confidence of our constituents.”

As a first step, surveys were emailed to all 517 member institutions as well as to 50,000 school counselors.

Developed in a tight time frame by Censeo, a D.C. based management consulting firm, the surveys basically asked respondents to characterize and compare experiences—good or bad—with the new Common Application (CA4).

“So, it wasn’t a great survey, but it will, I suspect, give them an overall sense of how frustrating it’s been for us on the college side,” said one college administrator.

Counselors who received the survey were a little more direct.

“…many of the questions…were not useful at all in terms of improvement,” commented school counselor from New York. “They were basically, ‘how did we do?’”

Both surveys generally broke into sections designed to get information about respondents, their overall experience with the CA4, and some feedback on Common App organization and communications.

Not far different from the member survey, the counselor survey asked for level of agreement with a series of leading statements including

  • Overall, I had a good experience with CA4.
  • The release of CA4 had a positive impact on my work and productivity.
  • Several colleges have their own specific sections and they were all available during the application process.
  • Updates to CA4 were regularly rolled out during the Fall and solved existing issues.
  • CA4 would be a better system than the previous ones, but only once key technical issues are resolved.

Another series of questions asked counselors to indicate satisfaction by differentiating between the early launch period (August through October) and recently (after November 2013) for a limited set of application components including the login process, password requirements, browsers, the payment section, the “printing function,” and integration with Naviance. Again, the survey asked whether or not CA4 has “proven to be a better system than CA3.”

There were no questions covering clarity of language, availability of paper versions, ease of use, the general efficacy of text boxes, essay length and limitations, or how well smart technology functions performed. The survey did, however, allow generous room for comments.

“I wrote pages and pages in the comment section because the questions didn’t really cover all the problems,” explained a local counselor.

In a third section, the survey probed how well the Common Application supported the launch of the new technology by once again asking for a level of agreement with a series of positive statements including:

  • I received clear, concise, and timely communication from Common App personnel with respect to potential upcoming issues with CA4
  • I had access to helpful training material.
  • It was easy to find solutions to issues I encountered with the Common App through the various self-help materials.
  • There is a clear process in place through which I can communicate suggestions for technical enhancements and/or updates.

And the $64,000 question: “CA4 was ready for deployment in August 2013.”

Counselors were asked if the Common App promptly acknowledged and resolved issues. They were also asked to assess the Common App’s reputation as a “competent and well-managed organization.”

In the final major section of the survey, counselors were probed about Common Application policies and processes. Of particular note was a statement affirming the sufficiency of current channels for resolving applicants’ technical issues.

Also covered were the quality of essay topics, the balance between offering students a common application and allowing colleges to ask questions they felt necessary, and the desirability of providing for a single recommendation for each applicant regardless of which colleges he/she applies to (this was not intended for Naviance users). And in a curious marketing question, counselors were asked how likely they were to recommend the Common Application to their peers.

The final question on the survey asked counselors to estimate what percentage (not how many) of their students encountered significant issues while applying.

In all communications relative to the project, the Common Application and Censeo have promised to share findings in various forums later this spring.

While counselors and applicants will be looking for the Board of Directors to use survey results to make improvements in technology and communication, colleges will be assessing how the Board addresses organizational issues as the Common Application begins a major transition to managing the entire operation in-house without the technical support of Hobsons.

And over the next couple of months, member colleges will begin the process of deciding whether or not to continue with the Common Application and/or add other application instruments for back-up. Censeo’s findings and recommendations based on the two surveys may figure heavily in these decisions. But more important will be the Board’s ability to use whatever information is gathered in a constructive way to make substantive improvements for the future.

No one wants a repeat of what happened this year.

This is the second in a series of three articles.

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