Over the last decade, the internet has made it much easier for students to apply to college, especially thanks to services like the "Common App." For the nearly 700 schools now part of the Common Application-- the nation's leading standardized online college application portal--students can browse by name, state, or region, by the type of institution (public or private), and by whether it's co-ed or single-sex. Clicking on a college takes students to a brief profile of the school and then an invitation: "Ready to apply?"
And now that students can apply to more colleges with the click of a few buttons, they are doing exactly that. In 2013, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), 32 percent of college freshmen applied to seven or more colleges--up 10 percentage points from 2008. Almost all of this growth has been online. In the 2015-16 admissions cycle, over 920,000 students used the Common App, more than double the number in 2008-09.
On the one hand, the internet has been good news for college access. Officials at the Common App, for example, say 31 percent of the college applicants who used the portal in 2015-16 were first-generation students. Students and their families are also now smarter consumers of what's likely to be among the biggest ticket items they will ever buy: a college education. The internet has also been great news for college marketing departments, which can now reach many more students--and more cheaply--than they could via old-fashioned snail mail.
But the growing piles of applications are also causing problems--both for colleges and for students. While schools might welcome the rush of national exposure from a broader pool of prospects, they also increasingly face the problem of sorting out qualified, serious applicants-- students who not only have the right academic chops but would actually enroll if accepted--from the scrum. And so long as the sheer volume of applications continues to rise, the odds of colleges' guessing wrong rise too--which, in fact, is what's happening, with dire consequences.
For students, the flip side is how to rise above the growing tide of competition, or how to hedge their bets if they don't. For middle-class and upper-income students, this means more hassle, anxiety, and expense. But for lower-income students, it means barriers that could prove insurmountable. While the college admissions process has long been a game that favors those who know the rules, a crowded market is just one more way of stacking the deck against those who don't or can't afford to play.
For many schools, the national applicant pool made available by the internet has been a great way to raise their "selectivity"--a metric that matters greatly for traditional college rankings, like those of U.S. News & World Report. The lower the percentage of students admitted, the more "selective" the college. This means a school that admits the same number of...