Minnesota colleges brace for potential application snafus

Might come in handy the next few weeks (David Gallagher via Flickr)

Some Minnesota private colleges are waiting nervously to see whether the association behind The Common Application works out a range of glitches in time for this fall’s early-decision application deadlines.

The technical problems, which have garbled students’ applications and even prevented their delivery, blew the October early-admissions deadlines of Georgia Tech and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which are giving students an extra week to apply.

It’s not quite so pressing for Minnesota colleges such as St. Olaf and Carleton, which are among several that have Nov. 15 deadlines. Officials there say they’re hopeful the system will be working well by that time.

Still, the snafus have already rattled some colleges’ admissions offices and kept the phones ringing with complaints from applicants.

“While we can’t quantify losses — it’s impossible for us to know how many students have decided not to apply because of these issues — we’re feeling confident that some good applicants have opted not to apply to St. Olaf,” said Jeff McLaughlin, dean of admissions and financial aid.

About a dozen Minnesota colleges use The Common Application, according to the website of the nonprofit association that runs it. The application enables students to fill out one online form and send it to multiple colleges, which saves them — and colleges — time and money.

But problems have plagued it this year. The system has mangled students’ essays, failed to register their applications, and locked them out of the application process altogether, among other things.

McLaughlin said his department received a small number of applications last week. Although the information appeared to be in order in an initial look-through, he said, staffers are still checking its accuracy.

Carleton College spokesman Eric Sieger said its officials haven’t checked their batch of applications yet, but may do so this week.

“We’re not panicking yet,” Sieger said. Common Application officials have been working quickly to solve problems, he said, and “we’re hoping the problems will be resolved shortly. … We have not felt the need to put in place back-up plans. If things blow up this week, we may re-evaluate.”

McLaughlin said his college may turn to a paper application or another online application if problems persist. That could, however, prove cumbersome, he said.

Yet St. Olaf is one of several Minnesota colleges that might be able to soften the problem somewhat.

Like some other colleges, has a second early-admissions deadline in January, which McLaughlin said gives students another shot at applying.

The admissions page on its website includes something called “Part 1,” a form to register one’s interest in applying to the college. McLaughlin said that should help admissions staffers track students who showed intent but didn’t apply or had incomplete applications. The college could then contact them to see whether they had any problems with the application.

(St. Olaf also has posted a warning about Common Application complications.)

Carleton has a similar registration form. Officials from the two campuses say they posted the forms before The Common Application problems came to light.

Carleton also uses another application process called QuestBridge. Other campuses also offer students the option of using The Common Application or filling out the colleges’ own applications.

McLaughlin said St. Olaf is one of a few Minnesota colleges that rely heavily — or exclusively — on the Common Application.

He said it was a way to save the time and cost of processing multiple types of applications.

But he told me:

“I don’t think we really thought through how risky it was to have a single application source until … it was clear that there were problems. And then all of a sudden you had that ‘Ah-hah’ moment where you think, ‘It worked really well for a long time, but we’ve become reliant upon a single provider, which is never ideal.”