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Pennsylvania

Pitt, Penn State student applications consolidated

| Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

They are rarely on the same playing field, but the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State are on the same page with a student application due to debut Sept. 1.

The application, created by the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, a consortium of highly selective private colleges and public flagship universities, will be available on the Pitt and Penn State websites.

“It's kind of historic. It's the first time Pitt and Penn State will be on the same application. Students can use that application to apply to Penn State and Pitt,” said Pitt's Kate Ledger, a staffer in the admissions and financial aid office who worked with one of the committees that developed the application.

While they intend to introduce the application this fall, officials at Pitt and Penn State said they will continue to accept their traditional applications this year.

About 54 universities across the country — including Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr colleges in Eastern Pennsylvania, as well as Ohio State, Harvard, Yale, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Cal Tech and Stanford — will accept the new application this fall. An additional 40 colleges are slated to begin accepting it next fall.

Although the bulk of the application is standard, each school may add custom features, such as Penn State's requirement that applicants list first and second choices among its 20 campuses.

Coalition member schools also have agreed to waive application fees for low-income students.

But perhaps more important than adopting a common standard for applications, the coalition is offering a so-called virtual locker — a free, web-based college planning tool — to students beginning their freshman year of high school.

Students can access the virtual locker and create a portfolio at http://www.coalitionforcollegeaccess.org/.

Marc Harding, Pitt's vice provost, is encouraging high school students to visit the site.

“When I or a member of my staff go out to visit high schools, we're usually meeting with seniors or maybe juniors. It's too late then. I can't do anything about that senior's curriculum choices or that student's bank account. But this allows us to start the discussion earlier, to tell them what they need to do to get into the university and how to pay for it,” Harding said.

Students who log on to the site can begin developing an electronic portfolio, including items like essays, records of their activities and interests, letters of support and awards over the next four years.

Harding said it will allow students to grant a mentor or teacher access to that portfolio to help them curate it as they develop a profile that may be helpful when they apply for college.

“A student would be able to upload an essay and share that with a teacher or mentor,” he said.

Toli Santavy, 18, a Hempfield Area High School senior who counts Pitt's Oakland campus high on his list of college choices, was interested to learn of the virtual locker.

“I wish we'd had that when I was a freshman,” he said. “The issue nationally is we've got to get students thinking about college earlier.”

The coalition tool kit also includes a platform that advises students on how to pay for college.

“Parents and students are encouraged to think about college much earlier. This offers directions, guidance and encouragement through the process,” said Dave Gildea, communications director for undergraduate admissions at Penn State.

The Obama administration has been pushing the nation's selective universities to reach out to low-income students, noting that there is limited diversity in terms of income on such campuses and that many students who could successfully compete at those schools never consider them because they have written them off as financially unattainable.

Harding said the coalition schools may be able to attract a broader base of applicants if high school students tap all of the resources available in the new process.

Although more applications typically translate into a lower acceptance rate, something that can boost a college's standings in national rankings, Harding said that was never a consideration at Pitt.

“Many schools do things just to boost applications. We're not doing this to boost applications. We are focused on the right fit for student, the best fit for students and the quality and diversity of the class,” Harding said.

He noted that Pitt opted not to participate in a common application developed in 1975 that about 700 colleges now accept.

Some question whether the coalition application goes far enough to help low-income students clear barriers to enrolling at selective schools.

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert who has testified before Congress on the topic, publishes Cappex.com, a free website that connects students with colleges and financial aid. He questions whether the new free platform and waivers on application fees for low-income students will have any impact on their ability to access such schools.

He said selective schools are not recruiting in truly impoverished neighborhoods, nor do they realize that even a full scholarship does not cover the cost of attending college.

“I've looked at the application, and it doesn't seem a whole lot different from the traditional application. What is making it more accessible? I don't see anything,” Kantrowitz said.

“Lower-income students don't have the same access to computers as higher-income students. They're not walking around with iPads and phones. It's just another thing for students to stress over,” he said.

“And even if it were to attract more low-income students, which I doubt it will, I doubt colleges are going to admit more of them.”

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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