College & Workforce Readiness

New Leader of Common App Alternative Faces Questions, Criticism

By Catherine Gewertz — April 27, 2016 6 min read
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Seven months ago, an elite group of colleges and universities created a new application system intended to help disadvantaged students find their way to higher education. Now the group has hired its first executive director. And she faces a pile of unanswered questions and deepening criticism about the system from the college-advising community.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success announced Monday that it has chosen Annie Reznik as its first executive director. She begins May 1.

Reznik has been on both sides of the college-admissions table: As a high school counselor, most recently at a private Quaker school in Providence, R.I., she’s guided students as they apply to college. As an admissions officer at the University of Maryland, she’s reviewed applications.

Until now, the coalition’s work has been led by a governing board of representatives of its 90-plus member institutions. But college counselors have become increasingly critical of the group as they struggled to get clear information about how the system will work. Their frustration has spilled onto listservs for the profession, and into conferences where they’ve had to move to bigger rooms to accommodate all the people who wanted to pepper coalition representatives with questions.

In an interview with Education Week, Reznik said she will do everything she can to make sure the Coalition helps counselors get the information they need.

“I certainly feel like counselors need more information, and I’m excited to help them get it,” she said. “I feel so confident that the intentions and goals of the Coalition are important, and ultimately, counselors are student-centered. So I’m hopeful they’ll start to feel more confident in the organization when we bridge those information gaps.”

Education Week tried to reach three university-based leaders of the Coalition to discuss its new leadership, and counselors’ complaints about its transparency. One declined to be interviewed, and two didn’t return calls.

Bumps in the Road

Recently, counselors learned that dozens of coalition members have decided to delay using the application system for a year. But counselors are still struggling to get a full picture of what’s going on. Earlier, the coalition delayed by three months the release of a key piece of its application system.

Rafael Figueroa, the dean of college guidance at Albuquerque Academy, a private school of 1,100 students, said he learned at a counselors’ conference in Tucson recently that Colorado College had opted not to use the coalition system for a year. The Coalition didn’t schedule a presentation for the Tucson meeting the way it had for other regional gatherings, Figueroa said. He happened to hear the news from a Colorado College official who “took it upon himself” to discuss the issue at the conference.

“That was literally the first time I had heard that any of the [Coalition] colleges were planning to step back,” Figueroa told Education Week. “I was quite stunned, honestly, because I thought, well, this is a critical piece of information. How long a list is it? 40? 50 schools? When would we in the West have heard about it?”

Figueroa said he was also dismayed to learn that the coalition posted new essay prompts on its website, but sent no email notification to the counseling community. He learned about it from a colleague who had scoured the website.

At the Tucson meeting, Figueroa said he also pressed for clarification on how much financial aid Coalition schools are required to provide. That’s a key idea, since the organization requires participating institutions to show that they will meet the “full demonstrated financial need” of students. Again, Figueroa was frustrated that he couldn’t get a clear answer.

“They are just really dropping the ball with communication time and time again,” he said. “Why should we have to dig to find these things? It feels like they have a lot to hide, that they’re unsure, that this whole platform is very unstable.”

An Equity-Minded Vision of College Application

When the Coalition launched last September, it portrayed itself as a new method of connecting promising but often overlooked students with top-notch colleges and universities. Part of its system features an online “locker” that students can use to assemble videos, essays, projects, and other work into a multifaceted portrait of themselves, starting in 9th grade.

The “digital locker” part of the system was originally to be released in January, but was moved to April. With four days left in the month, there’s been no word about just when that release will happen, or whether it will be delayed. The application part of the coalition system is scheduled to become available this summer.

From the beginning, the coalition hasn’t emphasized its role as an alternative to the Common Application, even though that was part of the idea behind its launch. Grumbles about the Common App multiplied after it ran into online problems in 2013.

Instead, the Coalition has emphasized its mission: to reach underserved students in new ways and help them connect with institutions that will offer them good financial aid packages and a very good chance of graduating. (To belong to the group, colleges and universities must demonstrate these and other critieria.)

But some counselors and college officials have worried that starting to build an online application locker as early as 9th grade could make students nervous about college admissions two years earlier than the notorious junior year. Others have argued that the system could perpetuate inequity by allowing students with the resources to build fancy portfolios to outdo students with less access to expensive tools and guidance.

Still others have raised questions about the privacy safeguards on those lockers, wondering who would have access to students’ information. They’ve complained on the counselors’ listserv that those data privacy questions have been met with unsatisfyingly vague answers.

Welcoming New Leadership

Phillip Trout, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, whose listserv has buzzed with debates about the Coalition, said all of that uncertainty and debate make it a good thing that the organization has hired a new executive director. And it’s “fantastic” that Reznik is someone who has “been on both sides of the desk,” in both college admissions and college advising, he said.

But “God bless her, Annie Reznik is going to be one busy woman,” said Trout, a college counselor at Minnetonka High School in Minnesota. College counselors have been “deluging” the Coalition with questions, he said, and “typically, the answer is: ‘Good question.’”

He acknowledged that some members of NACAC has been “very unforgiving” about allowing the Coalition to find its way through its startup phase. But David Hawkins, NACAC’s executive director for educational content and policy, said there’s a reason for counselors’ impatience: It’s because counselors work with students and families for up to two years as they approach the fall application season.

“Accordingly, the profession is accustomed to a significant amount of lead time when there are changes, whether large or small, to the application process,” he wrote in an email to EdWeek.

“Given the prominence of the members of the Coalition, it isn’t surprising that school counselors are feeling pinched” if they can’t get the information they need to answer students’ and families’ questions, he said. He added that getting timely information to counselors and college advisors who work with underrepresented students is particularly important.

Photo: Scheryl Duarte, a senior at Roosevelt High School, fills out a college enrollment application at her school in Washington, D.C., in 2013. The school was hosting a “sit-in” to get high school students who might not otherwise go to college to apply. --Susan Walsh/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.