Janet Rapelye
Brian Wilson/Office of Communications
‘Virtual locker’ proposal sparks debate as path to attract underserved students

Princeton is among more than 80 leading colleges and universities working to develop a new application process that aims to make applying to college easier for low-income students.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success plans to launch an application portal this summer that will allow colleges to customize applications and let high school students begin planning for college in ninth grade by offering them access to a free “virtual locker” where they can upload examples of their schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and accomplishments. The hope, says Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye, is that by the time they reach their senior year, students will have amassed a collection of work they can draw upon in their college applications.

“Every year there are students that I wish we could have gotten to earlier to say, ‘You need to be taking a more rigorous academic load to be prepared for Princeton.’”

Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye

To join, coalition institutions must graduate at least 70 percent of their students within six years. Membership is restricted to private colleges that meet students’ full financial need, and to public universities that offer affordable tuition and need-based financial aid for in-state students.

So far the coalition includes all Ivy League schools, Stanford, the University of Chicago; liberal-arts colleges such as Swarthmore, Oberlin, and Amherst; and public institutions including the universities of Virginia, Michigan, and North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Initial membership requirements were chosen, Rapelye said, to demonstrate to students that “if you apply to one of us and are admitted, you will have a very good chance of graduating and getting the funding you need.”

The impetus for the coalition was widespread frustration when, in 2013, the Common Application — used by more than 600 colleges and universities —experienced a series of technical failures. (These glitches have been resolved.) But in designing an alternative application, coalition members wanted to reach low-income and underserved students more effectively, Rapelye said.

Research by Caroline Hoxby at Stanford University and Christopher Avery at Harvard’s Kennedy School has found that most high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to selective colleges, even though these institutions typically offer the most generous financial aid. Instead, these students tend to apply to less competitive schools — a phenomenon called “undermatching” — and graduate with more debt. “Finding these students is difficult for us,” Rapelye said. “You find them one by one by one.”

Among the advantages of the coalition system, say members, is that it could open up lines of communication with students early in their high school careers, potentially putting greater numbers of underserved students on the path to a selective college.

As they build their online portfolio of work and achievements, students can request information from college admission offices and share portions of the digital locker with college counselors, teachers, mentors, and admission officers.

“Every year there are students that I wish we could have gotten to earlier to say, ‘You need to be taking a more rigorous academic load to be prepared for Princeton,’” Rapelye said. The new system will allow college admission offices to advise students about courses they need before it’s too late, she said.

The coalition has sparked debate and some criticism since it was announced in September. In a Washington Post opinion piece, Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment and management at DePaul University, described the coalition as window-dressing elitism with “hollow promises,” writing that “a group of America’s most high-profile private colleges, already obsessed with prestige, are attempting to grab more.” And both the Jesuit High School College Counselors Association and the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools published letters questioning how it would help students without access to college counselors, and expressing concern that encouraging ninth-graders to begin online portfolios would increase anxiety and detract from learning.

Many worry that the coalition application might end up widening the gap between haves and have-nots. “When something gets more complicated, it makes it tougher on kids who don’t have resources,” said Christopher Reeves, a counselor at Beechwood High School, a small public school in Kentucky. “Kids who have people to support them, people to answer questions, people to go to, will understand it. For kids who don’t have people like that, it will be a lot tougher to understand what’s going on.”

“If you are really interested in access, asking kids who don’t have counselors to start putting lockers together in ninth grade makes no sense, and only enables those with counselors and wealthier resources to put more effective lockers together,” said Katy Murphy, college counseling director at Bellarmine College Preparatory, a private high school in California. High school freshmen are too young to begin worrying about college admissions, said Murphy, who would like to see the coalition’s lockers available only to 11th- and 12th-graders.

Several details of the new application system still need to be ironed out, said Rapelye, who emphasized that the coalition is still in its early stages. “Hopefully we can help the students who need the most help, and allow some balance for the students who are going to have a lot of help in the process,” she said. The coalition plans to unveil the locker feature in April, and to launch the new application platform in July.

Princeton likely will wait until the summer of 2017 to implement the new system, Rapelye said. After its launch, Princeton will continue to accept both the Common Application and the Universal College Application (which Princeton adopted in 2013). “It’s a challenge to develop a vehicle for application that is going to be used in the same way by every group,” Rapelye said.

Meanwhile, she said, Princeton has adopted several other measures to help attract low-income applicants, including hiring an associate dean for diversity outreach and partnering with more than 300 community-based organizations that work with high school students. These efforts, together with Princeton’s financial-aid policy, have helped the University increase the number of students it admits who qualify as “low-income” from 11.6 percent in 2003 to 23.8 percent in 2015. For the Class of 2019, Princeton defined low-income as a family income below $65,000.

While she hopes the application will make it easier for students to apply, Rapelye thinks it’s unlikely to make it less nerve-wracking. “The reality of our country is that there are students in schools where not enough attention is being paid to the college process, and not enough help being given to students, and those students need a lot of help,” she said.