Common App CEO on Pandemic's Impact on First-Generation Students: ‘Our Worst Fears Have Been Realized'

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact current and prospective college students across the country, data suggests that college applications have declined among groups that have historically been underrepresented in higher ed. 

"Since March, Covid-19 has significantly disrupted an admission system that has been in place for decades and our worst fears have been realized," says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of The Common Application, which is used by over 1 million students each year and is accepted by more than 900 U.S. schools. "Because what remains of the system that had already disadvantaged low-income, first-generation and BIPOC students has made those students even more vulnerable."

The Common App estimates that so far this year, applications from first-generation students and low-income students who qualify to have their application fees waived have decreased by approximately 10% compared to this time in 2019.

The number of applicants is down by roughly 2% among students who are not considered first-generation and roughly 3% among students who do not qualify to have their application fee waived. Overall, the number of college applicants is down by slightly less than 4%.

Courtesy of The Common Application
Courtesy of The Common Application

Rickard calls these figures "incredibly concerning" and says she worries these gaps in applications could exacerbate existing inequalities in higher education. 

"We need to re-imagine and basically revolutionize the admission process," she says, noting that this summer's Black Lives Matter protests reinvigorated calls for change in college admissions.

This year, the Common App eliminated questions asking students about their disciplinary record after finding that the question disproportionately disadvantaged Black students and is in the process of adjusting how the form addresses issues of citizenship status and gender identity. 

"The Common App was started in 1975. Now it's 45 years later, and if you look at the form from 1975 and you look at the form from today, it's remarkably similar," says Rickard, pointing out that college students today are less White and less affluent than in previous decades. "The good news is that Covid has underscored the urgency needed to create a new system focused on equity and students first."

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