High School Seniors! If You Liked Healthcare.gov, You’ll Love the Common App.

Decoding the tech world.
Nov. 13 2013 10:54 AM

Because the College Application Process Just Wasn’t Stressful Enough

The Common App meltdown was ridiculous and totally avoidable.

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Sometimes, for technical or logistical reasons, canaries or rollbacks aren’t feasible, and those times keep antacid companies in business. There is nothing that gives an engineer more heartburn than removing the margin of error. When I asked Anderson if Common App had ever considered rolling back to their earlier, working system after the instant crash on Aug. 1, he flatly said no.

The total meltdown didn’t have to happen. A pilot program should have shown the errors in the new Common App software. They should have retained the paper applications for at least the first year of the new system. And when problems did pop up, everyone should have been prepared to use last year’s software as a fail-safe. But because the project was managed incompetently, that wasn’t an option. “Incompetent” might sound harsh, but if you are working on a major upgrade without contingency planning for bug and failure scenarios, you are not managing the project competently. Bugs always happen.

(OK, I have seen instances in which upgrades went utterly smoothly. Yet in every one of those rare cases, people had made extensive contingency plans in case something went wrong. Coincidence?)

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Common App uses the educational software contractor Hobsons, which in turn is owned by right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail. They seem to have avoided the opprobrium directed at the Common App, though they were responsible for the development itself. Anderson directed me to them for all technical questions. All he could tell me was that Hobsons’ testing was “industry-standard as far as the ratio of developers to Quality Assurance folks.” Mr. Anderson, a ratio does not good software make. Forbes reporter Susan Adams was unable to get anything from Hobsons CEO Craig Heldman beyond some vague reference to “unexpected challenges.” Translation: You need us more than we need you.

Likewise, Common App’s refusal to say when things will work is pretty brazen: “Your requests for precise timelines are understandable,” wrote director of communications Aba Blankson to users on Oct. 18, “and we would provide such details if we could. To do so, however, would be to make commitments that we might not be able to honor.” (I can’t wait to try this line out on my editor.) Anderson claimed that Blankson’s absence of a timeline was not as frustrating as it sounds, as all “systemic” issues had been fixed at this point. When asked what a “systemic issue” was, he described it as “an issue that’s affecting a large percentage or even a majority of users.” Which is a bit like the airline telling you that your lost luggage isn’t a big deal because it’s not a “systemic” problem. Rest easy, high school seniors, a majority of applications are getting through! Let’s look at it a different way: Under Anderson’s standard, it’s more likely that you’ll run into a Common App bug than that you’ll get into Harvard.

I do not find Blankson and Anderson’s complacency surprising. Common App doesn’t need to beg forgiveness, because they have a captive audience: While hell hath no fury like the parents of a college applicant scorned, too many students are already locked into the system. Common App’s generally desultory attitude toward customers is symptomatic when a monopolistic middleman has control over a scarce product, in this case college acceptances. Explaining why no phone support will be forthcoming, Common App issued an Oct. 18 “Statement of Commitment”: “Given the volume of users who interact with our system, phone support would immediately become unsustainable.” For “unsustainable,” read “unprofitable.”

The worst aspect of the Common App’s monopoly is its use of “exclusive” carrots, offering discounts and other perks to colleges that agree to use the Common Application as their only way of applying. Independent educational consultant Nancy Griesemer, whose coverage has been excellent, has described in detail the pressure and enticements put on colleges to go exclusive—more than a third of the 517 did. They are now stuck with Hobsons’ Choice: to take it or leave it.

With any luck, this imbroglio will put a damper on the Common Application’s bid to become the Ticketmaster of college admissions. Applying to college should be more like filing taxes than buying from Ticketmaster. A monopolistic middleman has every incentive to rip you off and underperform—even a nonprofit like Common App, which aggressively pushes exclusive contracts in order to overpay incompetent contractors for inferior work. Unfortunately, the Ticketmaster model is more lucrative, and so it dominates.

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