A quarter of students start the Common App but don’t follow through. Why?

The most significant factor distinguishing students who successfully applied to at least one college and those who didn't (non-submitters) was whether or not they completed the essay portion.

About one-third of all graduating high school seniors used the Common App to apply to college in 2018-19, yet almost 25% didn’t submit a single application they started, according to an academic report from researchers at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor Taylor Odle and Preston Magouirk, chief data officer of the DC College Access Program, pulled administrative records from one of the most widely used college applications to discover the main friction points for students in the application process.

Odle and Magouirk suggest the report’s insight can help K12 and higher education leaders pinpoint which students need more intensive support to develop college-going behaviors and which sections of the application are the most significant impediments.

“Our findings suggest that efforts to simply get students to the college application stage are insufficient; the form itself and the actions required to apply still represent a significant and unequal barrier that cause a sizable population of college-interested students to not apply,” Odle and Magouirk wrote.

The most significant factor distinguishing students who successfully applied to at least one college and those who didn’t (non-submitters) was whether or not they completed the essay portion. Specifically, 94% of students who applied submitted an essay response, compared to 43% of non-submitters.

Another key indicator for a student’s non-submission rate was their lack of focus or intention when applying. For example, 85% of applicants without specific education plans (e.g., attaining an associate, bachelor’s, etc.) were non-submitters. The exact rate stands for those who did not designate a career aspiration. Conversely, applicants who stated their interest in being a scientific researcher, business executive or engineer had less than an 18% chance of being a non-submitter.

Environmental factors affecting Common App submission

The predictability of students following through with the Common App is also based on factors outside their immediate control or action. The authors identified elements within student demographics and the family and community they were part of that caused inhibitions in Common App completion.

Black/African American and Latinx student non-submission rates ran above the 24.4% average, but rates among American Indian/Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian students ran the highest.

The educational attainment of each student’s family and community led to significant changes in their submission status. Specifically, if both of a student’s parents had at least a bachelor’s degree, there was a 9% higher chance they would apply and an 8% higher chance for at least one parent. At the community level, each additional percentage point increase in the educational attainment rate of the adult population was associated with a 6.1% reduction in the likelihood a student was a non-submitter.

Other societal factors influenced these student outcomes as well. The community median household income for those who successfully applied was $87,500, $8,400 more than the median household income for those who didn’t submit an application. Additionally, as the community unemployment rate incrementally increased, so did the likelihood of Common App non-submission.

How can stakeholders improve college application completion rates?

Of the 1.22 million students who started an application in the 2018-19 academic year, more than 297,000 didn’t submit an application, leading to a 24.4% pool of non-submitters.

Leaders can now pinpoint which student populations are more likely to fall out of applying, so the report suggests developing predictive analytics tools and targeted interventions.

But considering how students who had already created a Common App account in a prior application cycle were 9% more likely to be non-submitters than students applying for their first time, leaders should urge students to apply within their first cycle.

With the essay posing as the largest hurdle for students—more than any specific student, parent or community demographic—leaders must find a way to help students put pen to digital paper. Rick Clark, Georgia Tech’s assistant vice-provost and executive director of undergraduate admission, believes generative AI chatbots can help “democratize” the application process by providing the same essential assistance tools a parent or counselor would in drafting, according to The Guardian.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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