On Oct. 29, Jenny Rickard ’86, CEO and President of the Common App, returned to Swarthmore College as a McCabe lecturer to speak on inequalities in the college admissions process. Her lecture, “Increasing Equity in the College Admissions Process,” took place in the Pearson Hall Theater where she spoke to faculty, students, and alumni.
The McCabe lecture series takes place annually during Garnet Weekend, attracting accomplished speakers from a variety of fields, most of whom are alums of the college. Past speakers include Editor-In-Chief of Glamour Magazine Cindi Leive ’88, former Massachusetts Governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis ’55, and Nobel Prize laureate and astrophysicist Dr. John C. Mather ’68.
Rickard, the head of a national nonprofit that annually impacts the application process of more than a million students applying to higher education, was invited this year as the McCabe lecturer to talk about her work with the Common App.
The Common App is an organization and website that represents over a thousand schools and helps students apply to college. It aims to streamline the admissions process by reducing the number of forms students need to fill out by hosting all applications and submissions on one website. Rickard spoke about the benefits of the Common App for students applying to college and how the idea for it came to be.
“The photocopier was the inspiration for Common App in 1975,” Rickard said. “It was a great idea and a grassroots effort of college admission officers and school counselors to leverage the latest technology of the time to create a common form. Students didn’t need to type or handwrite their application form over and over again and then put it in the mail.”
Since its founding with fifteen original partner colleges, Common App has grown substantially to connect with over a thousand colleges. In 2018, they acquired Reach Higher, an initiative started by Michelle Obama to inspire students to complete a college education, as part of an ongoing effort to increase access to college for students and expand the website’s impact and usage.
In terms of bringing more joy to the admissions process, Rickard also talked about a feature many students who have recently applied to college may have fond memories of: the “celebrate” button that fills the screen with confetti, available after an application is submitted. Common App uses a back-end software tool that shows which buttons are most repeatedly clicked by users (called “rage clicks”). The number one rage click is the celebrate button.
“The most stressful moment in Common App for many students is pressing the submit button,” Rickard said. “Our technology team responded to that information by enhancing the user experience and two years ago added some confetti after hitting the submit button. One of our developers even added a celebrate button so applicants could press it over and over.”
In addition to the updates the Common App has made over the years, Rickard also spoke about the actual forms students applying must complete. She noted that while student bodies and higher education have drastically changed since 1975, the application form itself has remained largely the same. Rickard commented on some of the changes the Common App has made in recent years to reflect this shift in students applying to college while addressing inequities.
One of the application questions that has changed is the school disciplinary question, which asked whether a student had a disciplinary record. This question was removed from the Common App in 2021. According to Common App’s data, underrepresented minority students were more likely to self-report disciplinary infractions and attend high schools that chose to report these infractions. Students who had answered “yes” to the school disciplinary infractions question were less likely to follow through with their application.
“Just think for a minute about students who already think the odds are stacked against them, and then they get to this question,” Rickard said. “So we decided we would remove it, enabling colleges and universities to still continue to ask that question on their application, but we also did so in a way sharing our data with our membership to let them know what the circumstances were and what the data showed. And how inequitable a practice it is.”
Because the Common App removed the question, now 40% of colleges require applicants to answer questions about infractions, as opposed to 100% before the change. Swarthmore does not ask questions about school disciplinary records.
In accordance with this drive for equity, in 2017 Common App also added an optional text box for students to clarify their gender identity. After this change, they reframed and added questions about pronouns and gender and received a 97% participation rate in answering the question. Next year, they will change the legal sex question to include an “X” option.
Another inequity that Rickard sought to address involves the fact that students in the top quartiles of income receive 130% more private scholarship funds than students in the bottom quartile of income. In response, the Common App is helping students find private scholarships for college by partnering with Scholarship America, an organization that matches students within the Common App who meet scholarship criteria and points them toward scholarships that they can apply for.
Common App is also piloting a new program called Direct Admissions, modeled after recent state programs. Based on a student’s academic information, the Common App will reach out to students in six select states to share that, based on their information, they would be absolutely admitted to certain colleges if they press submit. According to the Common App website, the program aims to help “underrepresented students with increased school choice and a sense of security in their application process.”
One significant indication of the admissions process becoming more equitable is the increasing diversity of applicants using the Common App. Rickard mentioned that underrepresented and minority student applications have increased at twice the rate of white students since 2015. Nevertheless, there is still work to be done regarding income gaps, as most applicants to four-year non-profit colleges, on average, reside in America’s wealthiest communities.
Rickard, who was a member of the women’s varsity soccer, basketball, and softball teams at Swarthmore and benefited from Title IX, learned about the importance of implementing change here at Swarthmore. In a paper about the history of women’s sports, she interviewed Eleanor “Pete” Hess, the first Women’s Athletic Director at Swarthmore. Hess reminded Rickard of the time and complexity required to enact systematic change. Rickard sees this lesson as especially relevant today given the current Supreme Court challenges to affirmative action and the need to make the college application process more equitable.
“Swarthmore helped me to find my purpose to address inequities of opportunity, whatever the size and where I see them and can affect them,” Rickard said. “And my challenge to all of you is how you can increase equity in the systems you are part of. At Common App, we found changing just one question or requirement can make a huge difference.”