Common App continues push to address access barriers

The Common Application, used by more than a million students each year to apply to college, has gradually eliminated a number of questions thought to exacerbate racial, economic, and other disparities in access to higher education. The organization, for instance, has addressed prompts about the nature of applicants’ military discharge, high school disciplinary history, and criminal history.     

Now, Common App officials are taking a hard look at citizenship- and immigration-related questions and plan to revise them by fall 2021, USA Today reports. Common App submissions among students who are undocumented fell by 16 percent between 2016 and 2020. During the 2019-20 admissions cycle alone, more than 300,000 students started their application, skipped the citizenship question, and ultimately failed to complete and submit the form, according to Common App officials.

“We don’t want people selecting themselves out of the process because we’re asking questions they feel are putting themselves and their family in jeopardy,” Common App CEO Jenny Rickard told USA Today

Balancing applicants’ need for privacy, colleges’ desire to offer support 

To reduce deterrants for undocumented applicants, the organization plans to revamp questions about citizenship and visibly signal when information, like a Social Security number, is optional.  It also will remove questions about how long a student lived outside the country and where their family members were born. For the first time, the Common App also will allow applicants to identify as DACA recipients.

Advocates for undocumented students say this latest round of Common App changes will be trickier than those that came before: higher ed leaders don’t want to discourage undocumented students from applying but also need information about students’ citizenship status in order to connect them with financial support and other resources. 

“Just because you take it off the Common App doesn’t mean that the college still doesn’t need it and use it in a way,” said Sara Urquidez, executive director of Academic Success Program, a college counseling group. “So how are they going to find a way and a solution that doesn’t put more burden on a student and family?”

Still, the Common App changes address a known barrier, advocates say. “I realized, wow, we’re probably losing such a huge portion of students that could be in the pipeline for higher education,” Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling told USA Today.

Chatbot seeks to fill counseling gaps exacerbated by COVID-19

In addition to the forthcoming form changes, Common App announced that it will launch a new artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot to guide students through the application process via text messages. According to Diverse Issues in Higher Education, the free chatbot, named Ollie, will prompt students, answer questions on demand 24/7, provide relevant resources, and facilitate phone or video calls with advisors for applicants and families who need more in-depth help. Common App is providing the service in collaboration with the College Advising Corps and AI company AdmitHub. 

Common App tested the chatbot with 173,000 applicants during summer 2020, sending more than 23 million messages and achieving a 65 percent engagement rate. This next phase is expected to reach more than a half million students and families, with around half of participants identifying as students who are low-income, first-generation, or people of color. If Common App sees strong results, it may embed the tool as part of its overall application process. 

Common App CEO Jenny Rickard says the organization hopes the chatbot will help fill a void for “students who already probably feel very alone in the college process“ and have been further separated from their school counselors by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of November 16, the organization had seen a 10 percent decline in applications from first-generation students and those eligible for fee waivers, compared with fall 2019.

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