The Common Application, which allows students to file college applications electronically, has promised that when it launches its new version tomorrow, things will be different: no more crashes, no more endless loading screens, no more frantic, angry teenagers. And that better be the case, because if those same glitches are repeated it could spell the beginning of the end for the Common App's near-monopoly on the electronic college application system.
A year ago, on the first day of what was being called the "Next Generation Common App" thousands of anxious high school seniors logged onto the new system, only to have it promptly crash — and that was only the beginning of a disastrous year for the country's largest electronic college application system. It was plagued by so many glitches, crashes, and timeouts that it forced dozens of colleges to push back deadlines and waive application fees. Payments weren't processed; recommendations couldn't be uploaded; essays on meaningful life experiences vanished.
Common App's executive director of 10 years, who had led the non-profit to its near-monopoly status, was fired as a result. The mass panic created by the technical problems even spawned its own Twitter account, @CommonAppProbs, and thousands of angry Tweets from teenagers.
The main problem was that students had nowhere else to go when the website failed — the non-profit so believed in its new app that it stopped printing paper applications, and it has such a monopoly on the system that few colleges accepted anything else. Just 43 institutions currently accept the Common App's main competitor, the Universal College Application; well over 500 take the Common App. Many students — 800,000 of them used the Common App last year — were forced to log onto the site at odd hours, redo application materials, and sit in front of seemingly endless loading screens.
If this version, which the organization is calling the "Next-Next Generation Common App," is anything like the last, it could be the beginning of a mass exodus from the Common App, said Kristen Willmott, the director of Application Boot Camp, a college admission counseling firm. Last year, at the height of the Common App's technical problems, some of the firm's students switched over to the Universal College Application, which Willmott said has been gaining steam.
"Colleges are going to be looking for ways to make the process go smoother" if the Common App's problems continue," Willmott said. "They end up hearing a lot of negative feedback when things aren't working."
A representative for the Common App said that the new version, which was created with the help of a third-party consulting group, includes "many changes" designed to address last year's issues.
The Common App generated just $13 million in revenue in 2011, but it has drawn the ire of for-profit companies that could be poised to take up the slack if students continue to be disillusioned with the technology. The for-profit website CollegeNET filed an antitrust lawsuit complaint against Common App earlier this year, not long after the failure of the new application. Despite its non-profit status, Common App has a partnership with the for-profit company Hobsons — which also owns Naviance, the system that most high schools use to upload student materials like transcripts.
Wilmott said Application Boot Camp has begun offering a "Common App Support Package" to help frustrated and desperate seniors navigate the new system. A two-hour Skype or phone chat costs $900.
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. She covers the intersection of business and education.
Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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