Evolving the Common App: The First Step Toward Anti-Racist College Admissions

The Common App is transforming and building a college admissions process that’s equitable for all. Here’s how.

By Christopher Wright

Much of what high school students are experiencing this year differs from what high school life was like pre-COVID, but one thing is the same—the process of applying for college

While high school students themselves may not be thinking much about the process itself, the past year has elevated complicated and much-needed conversations about equity among college counselors, university leaders, policymakers, and advocates—all of whom have a shared goal of fulfilling higher education’s promise of social and economic mobility, and all of whom are well aware of the ways in which we still fall short of that goal. 

Moments of crisis are often the most powerful catalysts for new and creative thinking. It’s in that spirit that Common App—whose college application serves more than 900 colleges and over a million students each year—has embarked on an effort to evolve the college application. This evolution is rooted in research and a commitment to advancing equity. With the support of higher education institutions around the country, we’re working to create a college admissions process that reflects the ideals of equity and justice that should always be at the core of higher education.

School Discipline Practices Are a Barrier to Equity

Throughout this process, and over many years of gathering feedback, school discipline has appeared at the forefront of the discussion on equity in college admissions. Federal data and academic research show that school discipline disproportionately impacts underrepresented students of color—and Black students in particular. According to a Center for Civil Rights Remedies study, to give just one of many examples, suspension rates for Black students are 3.5 times higher than for White students. Within these groups, suspension rates are even higher for students with disabilities.

Common App’s internal data strongly indicate that the school discipline question may inhibit some students from even submitting their college applications in the first place. According to our data, students who answer “yes” to the school discipline question are ultimately less likely to submit their application. Importantly, those students are disproportionately Black. Among students who do submit applications, Black students are more than twice as likely as White students to answer ‘yes’ to the school discipline question.

Additionally, Common App data reveal that underrepresented students of color are less likely to attend a high school that prevents disclosure of school discipline history. Many schools avoid the question of school discipline altogether as a matter of internal policy—troublingly but perhaps not surprisingly, those schools tend to serve fewer students of color.

As a result, not only is the research clear that Black students are disproportionately disciplined in high schools, but it appears they are also more likely to have that disciplinary history revealed to the colleges they hope to attend. 

Studies also show that, among the colleges and universities that ask the school discipline question, few have formal policies on how to interpret student and counselor responses. A recent survey by the Center for Community Alternatives found that only 25 percent of colleges collecting disciplinary information have formal, written policies to inform admissions staff. Only 30 percent have trained their admissions staff to interpret disciplinary violation findings. As one recent article put it, this can lead to the restriction of “diverse and college-ready applicants while also widening attainment gaps as a result of the disparate impacts of disciplinary standards.”

Building a More Just College Admissions System

In short, the research is unequivocal: from unclear policies to unintentionally discriminatory practices, school discipline systematically locks out students of color from the promise of higher education. The combination of these practices, coupled with implicit and explicit biases, suggests that changes in how we assess school discipline are necessary at the secondary and post-secondary levels. So last month, Common App removed the question on our application that asks students about their disciplinary history.

This is just one step in what must be a much broader effort to build a more just, equitable college admission process. But we’re hopeful that changes like this can be the initial dominos in a chain reaction that will help millions of students impacted by a legacy of racism in the higher education system.

What’s next for these efforts to revolutionize the application? We’re diving deeply into all aspects of Common App data, from questions about citizenship and geography to those about military service, to better understand where the structures we put in place may create unintended barriers for underrepresented students. With the support of our member institutions, we’ll be making more changes in the months to come, designed to not only remove those barriers—but also begin the process of rebuilding the system entirely.

In the months to come, we urge any organization focused on college access and success to ask the question: if we were to build a college admissions process from scratch, what would it look like? How would it recognize the unique value and potential that every student can bring? How would it look past—and break down—the biases and prejudices that are so prevalent across American society? And how can we make small changes to our existing systems that lay the foundation for more sweeping change to come?

That’s the journey we’re undertaking, and we hope you’ll join us.