- Colleges see an increase in out-of-state and international students after joining the Common Application, according to a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
- Students using the Common Application apply to more colleges and consider attending institutions farther away from home. That increases the number of applications member colleges receive but reduces their yields, resulting in them offering admission to a larger number of students.
- The researchers also found the Common Application may contribute to stratification in higher education because member colleges tend to be more selective.
The Common Application has grown from just 15 liberal arts colleges in 1975 to more than 700 private and public institutions today.
That has fundamentally changed college admissions in the U.S. For one, the ability to apply to multiple institutions at once has made the market for higher education more national, Knight said.
Students have historically stuck close to home when selecting a college, though recent enrollment patterns suggest they're more willing to attend institutions farther away.
It has also made elite colleges appear more selective. Acceptance rates for Ivy League and other elite colleges continue to fall, mainly because they are receiving more applications than ever before. Harvard, for instance, accepted just 4.5% of its 43,330 applicants in 2019.
"Because the market has become more national, (elite colleges) are able to attract better and better students," Knight said. Even so, elite institutions haven't responded to such trends by significantly increasing their capacity.
However, a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that the Common Application may not be the reason for a recent increase in applications. A review of nearly 1,400 institutions revealed there was "almost no difference" in application volume growth between Common Application colleges and other schools.
And while the most selective schools receive outsized media attention — especially in the wake of the recent college admissions scandal — they account for a tiny fraction of overall enrollment in higher education. The majority of U.S. colleges and universities admit most applicants, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Department of Education data.
Meanwhile, less-selective colleges are underrepresented within the Common Application. By 2016, fewer than 50% of less-selective private institutions and 20% of public institutions were Common App members, the researchers note.
Since then, the Common App added 200 members, a spokesperson for the company said. In 2017, 75 of its members admitted fewer than one third (34%) of their applicants, while 610 of its members admitted more than half of applicants, according to a Common Application analysis of Ed Department data.
The underrepresentation of less-selective schools found in the paper could be because most students who apply to such colleges are accepted and are less likely to apply to other schools, Knight said. Still, he added, those institutions may be able to mitigate stratification by joining the Common Application or making it easier for students to apply.
A handful of alternatives to the Common Application are available. The Coalition for College, for instance, provides college-preparatory resources and allows students to apply to all of its roughly 150 member colleges. And some state systems let applicants apply to any of their institutions through one portal.
However, no alternative has the same reach as the Common Application. "Lots of students might have an incentive to use it and maybe only even apply to institutions in the Common App," Knight said.
Further research could look into whether more platforms similar to the Common Application are needed, he added, especially those that cater to less-selective schools.