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October 15, 2015

Admission procedure changes planned

A new group of 80 colleges, including Pitt, have banded together to try to allow students better ways to find out about them, and to find their fit among them, especially students who might not have considered themselves eligible for these top-tier universities in the past.

Called the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, it also will provide tools for students to accumulate application-worthy work in a portfolio beginning in ninth grade, making their applications richer and, if the student allows, letting colleges examine the material before or during the application process.

“The coalition has done something kind of extraordinary,” said Marc Harding, the University’s chief enrollment officer and head of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid (OAFA): They have held discussions on universities’ changing admissions needs for the first time in more than a decade. These changes include new technologies that encourage potential students to learn about colleges through online forums and other student-generated material, circumventing universities’ websites and sometimes even their notice. The changes also reflect universities’ desire to increase college affordability and student success rates, particularly for first-generation, minority and other students who may find it harder to gain the information or confidence to apply to universities such as Pitt.

“Pitt is very interested in reaching out to students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to go to college, as are many universities in this country,” said Harding. “How do we reach kids who don’t even think they can get into a Pitt or Stanford or Yale or Michigan? Many of these colleges that are part of the coalition don’t need more applications.” Instead, they are looking to draw previously inaccessible students into their applicant pools.

The coalition has two membership criteria. The first is a six-year federal graduation rate of 70 percent. Also, to be eligible, public institutions must have affordable tuition and need-based financial assistance for in-state students, while private colleges must provide for the full financial aid of students from the United States. The coalition includes all Ivy League schools, as well as top public and liberal arts institutions.

The coalition’s new application will be available for new or transfer applicants entering in fall 2017, when the coalition’s new website will go online. The 80 coalition universities are working now to agree on what information fields will be on the application. Pitt has three OAFA staffers on coalition committees: Kellie Kane, director of operations and strategic planning, on governance; Kerri Stover, director of information systems, on application design; and Kate Ledger, director of marketing and communications, on communications.

To connect with this new batch of applicants, the coalition also will be reaching out to community-based organizations, such as religious groups and other nonprofits, where potential college students may be involved. The coalition believes community-based organizations can aid these youths’ searches for the right college fit and the best college application approach.

Colleges and students alike also will find the portfolios tremendously helpful, Harding said. When students apply to colleges at the beginning of their senior year, they realize that it’s too late to tailor their 9th-11th grade experiences for the application process and college success. Universities also have been trying for a long time to figure out how best to assess applicants beyond tests scores, he said. Harding said he rarely has seen a student applicant’s too-formulaic essay or too-cautious recommendations be helpful enough to admissions officers in making an application decision.

With the new system, students will be able to better see, in one spot, what multiple colleges are looking for in students’ experience. Students will accumulate portfolios of papers, tests and projects in a kind of virtual locker that they may then open to all or selected colleges for examination, as early as each student desires.

Harding recalled admissions practices in the early 1990s, before web browsers, when students relied on paper brochures and high-school counselors in choosing a college, and the early 2000s, before social media, when colleges were more in control of their own images and information.

Today, he said, OAFA has seen an increase in “stealth applications” from students who apply without ever having visited Pitt’s website or signed up for email contact with OAFA, and thus have never been on the University’s radar.

He believes, with websites such as College Confidential drawing unvetted student commentary, the coalition may be even more important in helping potential students and their families sift through all the available online information and evaluate colleges that seem bigger than life and unreachable otherwise.

Robin Kear, liaison librarian in research and educational support in the University Library System and chair of the University Senate’s student admissions, aid and affairs committee, said: “It will be interesting to see what students, families and high schools do with this coalition. It will provide more interaction and support for those high schoolers at a lower level who need or want that interaction on the path to college.

“They might make a connection with a new college — one they hadn’t thought of— and a stronger connection with one they already have their sights on.”

—Marty Levine     

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 4

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