Should more Washington universities adopt the Common Application, which allows students to use a single application to apply to multiple colleges at once? According to new research, schools that use the application have a competitive edge: they attract students with higher test scores and bring in high-performing students from out-of-state who might otherwise attend a local university.

But there’s a downside, according to analysis from the National Bureau of Economic Research: the application helps widen the gap between the types of students attending the nation’s most and least selective schools, the study suggests.

In simple terms, “it is going to be harder to be admitted [to a Common Application school] if you have a lower test score,” said lead researcher Brian Knight, professor of economics at Brown University in Rhode Island.

Elite private and liberal arts colleges have used the application for decades, but it has also become widely used by public and regional universities, including less selective ones. Now, more than 800 colleges accept it, including nine in Washington, such as Gonzaga University, Seattle University and Pacific Lutheran University.

The new research is among the first to examine achievement among students at Common Application schools. In general, the study finds, schools see average freshman SAT scores go up in the years after they adopt the Common Application.

“This certainly provides an incentive for schools to join the Common App,” Knight said. The application is so commonly used, he added, that “the costs of not joining are higher now in the sense that many students only apply to schools that are on the application.”

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The Common Application has long been promoted as a way to improve equity in college admissions by making the process simpler. For students, it makes applying to more schools, including those far from home, more efficient. For universities, the application has generally led to a bigger and more diverse applicant pool, the research and anecdotal accounts suggest. It has also helped some universities solve practical problems, such as moving from paper applications to digital ones, said Julie McCulloh, dean of admissions at Gonzaga University.

But the application has received its share of criticism. In 2017, for instance, the application’s web portal went down two days before early applications were due at many colleges, The New York Times reported. Some university officials have criticized the application for requiring a letter of recommendation, which can be burdensome for high-school counselors to produce and cumbersome for admissions officers to review.

According to the new research, the Common Application has also led to more stratification between high and low performers. In the study, Knight and his colleagues examined College Board and federal data spanning from 1990 to 2016. Universities that joined the Common App generally witnessed an increasing number of applications over time, they found. And during the study period, an increasing number of applicants who score in the top 75 percentile on college entrance exams chose Common Application schools.

Admissions officers at Gonzaga University in Spokane, which began accepting the Common Application in 1998, confirmed that the move coincided with an increase in applicants — and an increase in selectivity. About 88% of total applicants were admitted in 1998, McCulloh said. For fall semester 2019, that number was just over 60%.

“Our applications have gone up, our profile has gone up, out-of-state [applicants have] gone up,” McCulloh said. This may have partly been influenced by the rising profile of Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team, she added.

Some universities have seriously considered the Common Application, but opted against it.

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The University of Washington, for instance, instead uses an option called the Coalition Application. This alternative to the Common Application was created in 2015 and is used by about 150 schools. It has received flak from people who find the application portal difficult to navigate, according to Inside Higher Ed.

The Coalition Application doesn’t require a letter of recommendation and gives students more flexibility to self-report their academic information than the Common Application does, said Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the University of Washington.

Like the Common Application, though, there’s a possibility that the Coalition Application will lead more Washington students to consider schools other than UW, Seegert said. This is because UW applicants can now also easily apply to and consider other Coalition Application schools.

The university is moving forward with the change anyway. “We decided that we were OK with that risk because we believed in the value of the coalition,” he said.