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The Big New Effort To Revamp College Admissions — Will It Work?

LA Johnson

TO: America's colleges and universities

FR: America's high school students

RE: Please make the college admissions process less daunting and more collaborative, creative, engaging and in tune with the Digital Age. Oh, and while you're at it, try to level the admissions playing field between rich and poor.

Funny you should ask, dear students. Those are exactly the goals of the new Coalition for Access Affordability, and Success. The group just announced a new free joint application website and online college planning portal. The goal is to help students collaborate with counselors and build a rich portfolio of work throughout high school. The site is scheduled to launch in January.

The college application part of this is set to go live in the summer of 2016. It will offer an alternative and implicit rebuke to the widely used Common Application, which critics have called unimaginative and which had major and well-publicized technical problemsin 2013.

This new coalition includes Ivy League colleges and scores of other highly selective private, liberal arts schools, as well as more than 30 leading research and public universities. To be part of the group schools must have a six-year graduation rate of at least 70 percent and provide sufficient financial aid for every domestic student.

To talk about this new effort and the thinking behind hit, I reached out to coalition member Zina Evans, the University of Florida's vice president for enrollment management.

Students from wealthier families have long had a big advantage when applying to the nation's more selective schools. They can often hire tutors and consultants, access the best public magnet or private schools and maybe tap family and alumni connections. The rich simply have more tools when looking at college. How does this coalition hope to help level the playing field?

By creating tools that will be free. It's free and it will be of high quality. The two tools are the collaboration platform and the digital portfolio for the students. The collaboration platform: Here's where a guidance counselor or someone from a community-based organization, they can go in and see the student's progress through the college planning process. They can give a student feedback. Maybe they're working on an essay or pulling together some performance art that they've done that they'd like to see considered eventually in their college application. They will have this tool, that will rival many of those out there that you have to pay for, to allow this student's guidance counselor, mentor, neighbor or friend be able to come in there and offer insight and guidance.

Critics have long noted that many low-income students and many who are the first in their families to go to college too often get limited or inadequate college counseling. Or as Kim Cook the head of the National College Access Network, told us, "Your ZIP code can really determine what your future will look like." Talk about the challenges that first-generation and low-income students face.

Information is power here. If you're the first in your family to go to college, you really don't have anyone in your immediate family that can tell you, "This is what the process is; this is how you navigate it." It's often, "Where do I start and what do I do next?" I think that often they will see the local college maybe as the only option because they may see cost as prohibitive. So how can we make sure they have information of net price versus actual price and what are scholarship opportunities? If students are self-selecting out simply because they saw one number of what it costs to go to college, we want to address that early and show students there are multiple ways for you to finance your education.

Are you and other coalition members hoping to help start those college conversations earlier?

We're starting this early, so this isn't the senior-year mad rush trying to get this information. If the 12th grade is the first time you're thinking about college and researching the idea, you're really putting yourself under a stressful timetable. At the University of Florida, we bring seventh through 11th graders to campus in the spring for workshops with them about thinking about college. Maybe the students didn't know where to begin before or didn't know there was somebody out there who was willing to talk to them before. Now we're going to be able to say, "Here's a tool when you go online, you'll be able to pull down information, and keep it, and think about it in a broader context."

This online portfolio of work - it could include video, audio, or written work and such - it's designed to allow high school students to build a coherent package about themselves over the course of four years?

Yes, this is like a virtual locker to place memorable things as early as the ninth grade. I think the digital portfolio is for the students to manage their experience and to make connections and give meaning to my experience. The collaboration platform, that's where a student can bring a guidance counselor or a mentor in, to say, "Here's where I'm willing share some of that information" (from my portfolio) or get feedback from people I trust or to say to a school, "I'm interested in getting more information."

Online guidance counseling tools have been around for a long time. How are these really different, beyond being free?

Guidance counselors will be able to see whole groups of students that they're working with. Inside the collaboration platform, counselors can ask all the students they're working with — whether with 30 students or 130 students — to give them access. And they will have one tool, one location where they can get that information and guide those students. Also when it's time to apply, they can go inside this exact same tool and see what each individual student is doing and what they still need to do and how they're moving through the application process. Right now that opportunity doesn't exist except in those products you have to purchase.

We should note that while the website is free, colleges will still charge application fees, although most have waivers for low-income students.

At the end of the day, it still comes down to having a good guidance counselor or mentor helping a student navigate the complex maze of college admissions, no?

That is one of the best things to have, to have someone in your life helping the student understand it. But I think simply having students engage with these tools will help point students in the right direction who may not even know where to start.

And it's not, "If we build it they will come." We, as institutions, are going to have to be out there, talking with groups, engaging with counselors in lower-resourced schools to see how they might be able to engage with it.

To be clear, a student isn't necessarily going to hit "send" on his or her digital portfolio when it's time to apply. It's more a gathering place for their high school work?

It is a gathering place. But once we get to the application (launching next summer) we don't want students to have to re-do things. So students will have the opportunity to pull into the application those things that are appropriate. The idea or vision for this is that it's seamless. A student has placed the information in here and then they can pick and choose what's most appropriate to pull into the application for any individual institution.

You are still going to want SAT scores, an essay, recommendations and now, "Oh, by the way, if you want to put in something from your digital locker, we'll accept that too." Or does this fundamentally change the application process and mark a real re-think?

This is going to give us the opportunity to reflect on that. We've been asking for the same things for years and years. We believe that with this application, it may expand our flexibility to look at students and ask them to maybe represent themselves with different types of information. Students' ability to show and represent themselves through technology has increased tenfold in the last decade. So how then do we get meaningful information from students that will help us make informed decisions about who is going to be successful on our campuses and contribute? Will essays still be required? That's highly likely at the University of Florida. We've found that to be valuable. Could, in the future, that turn to more of a video perspective or some other type of electronic way they can relay that same question? We want to be open enough that we can see something like that happening in the future.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.