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The Common App will retain controversial pricing structure for next year

Agnes Scott College, GA
Agnes Scott College, GA
Nancy Griesemer

Despite hopes that the Common Application would do away with the three-tiered pricing structure currently in place for member institutions, the Board of Directors announced in a private email on Friday that no changes would be made in pricing policies for 2014-15.

Harvard has consistently offered students a choice between the UCA and the Common Application.
Harvard has consistently offered students a choice between the UCA and the Common Application.
Nancy Griesemer

“The challenges of this year and feedback we have received from members have led the board to question if our current policy of differentiating Common Application membership between Exclusive and Non-Exclusive users serves our members well,” explained the Board notification to members. “There is consensus on the Board that changes need to be made to the pricing structure in the future. However, implementing change without sufficient time for discussion and research would be ill-advised.”

What this means is that colleges not agreeing to be “exclusive” with the Common Application will be charged additional fees amounting to as much as $2.00 for each application submitted through their system:

  • Non-Exclusive (college offers two or more application options including the Common App): $4.75 app fee + $2.75 payment fee = $7.50
  • Exclusive 1 (college offers only the Common App): $4.00 app fee + $2.25 payment fee = $6.25
  • Exclusive 2 (college offers only the Common App and agrees to common deadlines as well as other specific criteria): $3.75 app fee + $1.75 payment fee = $5.50

This year, over 120 colleges out of 517 agreed to the Exclusive 2 arrangement. In addition to the price break, they also received a couple of upgrades including access to Slideroom for portfolio submission. Another 63 signed up for Exclusive 1.

For Harvard University, which has consistently used the Universal College Application (UCA) along with the Common Application, additional fees to maintain competition in the industry—not to mention provide backup in case of crashes—may reach close to $70,000.

And this is way too much money for smaller colleges or those institutions which happen to have less money in the bank.

“What is surprising to me is the way they want to dominate the world, but still think in terms of the most selective institutions in the way they do business,” said one vice president for enrollment management.

Even colleges able to afford the additional expense think the pricing difference based on exclusivity is problematic.

“Although disappointed at the Common App’s most recent decisions, I believe it is important for schools to have more than one option to apply to safeguard against a situation similar to this year happening again,” commented another VP representing a highly selective research university. “In general, [I am] not a fan of monopolies.”

The bulk of the Common Application’s annual income comes in the form of “fees” assessed on a per application submitted basis. In 2011 (most recent available data), the Common App reported total program revenue somewhere near $13 million, with a membership of about 414 colleges and universities.

This year, the membership stands at 517 institutions and so far, applications have been running about 15 percent above last year’s numbers which totaled 3.05 million. Even using the lowest possible price per application, the Common App has the potential to bring in somewhere north of $19 million this year in fees alone.

Because they were concerned about poor performance after the launch of the Common App’s new electronic application, several colleges including Princeton, Cornell, Juniata, Tufts, Washington University, Duke, and Emerson brought on an alternative—the UCA—for students to use.

And for this year, they were not charged a differential. If these colleges persist, however, they along with the University of Chicago—the most recent addition to the UCA for next year—will see an additional $2.00 tacked onto each application submitted through the Common Application system (note that according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the UCA charges a flat fee of $4.50 per application).

“Members who elect to offer an alternate application will be charged as Non-Exclusive members, regardless of historical membership level,” according to the Common App Board of Directors. “Members who plan for but do not launch an alternate application will be charged as Exclusive 1 or Exclusive 2 members.”

In other words, if a college keeps an alternate application in the wings—just in case—they still qualify for Exclusive membership. If they make the decision to provide an applicant with a choice from the very beginning of the process, they will pay a hefty fine.

Over the years, the Common App’s pricing structure, which is clearly designed to push competition out of the industry, has come under fire. And even the Board concedes that changes need to be made.

But taking the position that such changes unfairly penalize Exclusive members that have already budgeted application costs for next year, the Board elected to postpone consideration of the question until later.

In the meantime, colleges are being asked to decide which direction they will take during an Annual Update process culminating in a Member Conference scheduled to take place in D.C., May 8-9.

Given the track record of the past year, unresolved changes in leadership, and a complete overhaul of the Common App management structure, opting to join the Exclusive club seems like risky business for now.