URBANA — Students applying to the University of Illinois' flagship campus next year will be able to fill out a new online application, but it won't be part of the growing Common Application Consortium.
The university has decided against using the Common App, as it's known, for the Urbana-Champaign and Springfield campuses for the next few years, though the Chicago campus adopted it last year.
The Urbana-Champaign campus will develop a new version of its online application in-house instead and hopes to have it ready by fall, when students begin applying for admission in fall 2014.
The Common App allows students to apply to many colleges through one central application and is seen as a way to expand a college's reach nationwide. But its requirements differ from the UI's and would create more paperwork and require more staff, UI officials say.
A university committee that evaluated the Common App concluded that any potential benefits would be offset by the cost — estimated at more than $500,000 a year — and could disrupt the UI's own recruitment process. The move was also opposed by a majority of counselors at UI "feeder" high schools in suburban Chicago, some of whom wrote to then-UI President Michael Hogan last year to argue against the idea. Hogan had pushed the Common App as part of a sweeping proposal to revamp how the university manages admissions and enrollment.
"Down the line, it may be to our advantage to do it. Right now, the disadvantages seem to outweigh the advantages and the relative strength of the programs we already have in place," said Richard Wheeler, visiting associate vice president for academic affairs, who headed the UI Common App Consortium Assessment Committee.
The Common Application Consortium was founded 35 years ago by a group of private schools and has since expanded to include more than 450 colleges and universities nationwide and in western Europe. Schools pay an annual fee of $4 per application.
Public universities were invited in 2000 and more than 50 have joined, including Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, North Carolina and Virginia. This year, 750,000 students are expected to submit more than 3 million applications through the Common App.
A 2011 report on enrollment management at the UI, commissioned by Hogan, recommended that the university move to the Common App. Faculty balked at that proposal and others, fearing a loss of autonomy for the Urbana campus, and a revised report later recommended further study.
The UI Chicago adopted the Common App for students applying for fall 2013. But a report last summer from the Office of Admissions at Urbana recommended against it.
The campus wants to develop a new online application because the existing version developed under the Banner computer system is outdated and often unreliable, with frequent outages for maintenance and upgrades, the report said.
The Common App has advantages, the report said, with Michigan and other schools seeing a jump of 25 percent in applicants the first year (though the increase tapered off in subsequent years). But those potential gains would be offset by staffing increases of $495,000 to $527,000 to handle additional paperwork; a strain in relations with the UI's feeder high schools; and a loss of valuable data now gleaned from the UI's "Self Reported Academic Record," a list of high school courses and grades that applicants fill out online instead of supplying an official transcript.
The UI requires transcripts only for students already admitted, roughly 7,000 annually, whereas the Common App would require it of all 31,000 applicants. Gathering those transcripts is a labor-intensive process, as they're submitted in a variety of paper and electronic formats, Wheeler said.
The Self-Reported Academic Record cut application processing time by 75 percent, allowing the admissions office to automate calculations of GPA and Advanced Placement credits earned, for example. But the SRAR is not an option under the Common App, and "we will need to revert back to manual labor" to do those calculations, the report said.
Three-quarters of the schools in the Common App also require a supplement to the application — an additional two to five pages of questions specific to the institution — that the UI would have to develop. And the Common App requires letters of recommendation from high school counselors, which the UI does not currently accept.
Additional staff would be needed to review the transcripts, supplements and letters of recommendation — "a substantial spike in our intake of paperwork," the report said.
The letters of recommendation would also create a "significant burden" on high school counselors, Wheeler said. In 2011-12, 51 Illinois high schools had more than 100 applicants to the UI, the report said.
A new online application developed in-house would be much cheaper — about $50,000 annually — and would allow the UI to tailor the design to its own recruitment needs, the report said.
Wheeler said the panel will re-evaluate the Common App in three to five years. Most of the UI's academic peers still don't use it, but Purdue plans to join in the coming year, and Indiana and Wisconsin are thought to be considering it.
"We feel good about keeping our current processes in place, but at the same time, what's most important to us is doing what's best for the campus and our constituents," said Stacey Kostell, director of admissions at Urbana.
Newly admitted students touring the campus Monday said the Common App wasn't a factor in their decision to apply to the UI.
Jack Cordes of Lincolnshire said it might make a difference to out-of-state students, but most students at Stevenson High School would apply to the UI regardless. He also applied to Common App schools, including Harvard, North Carolina, Cornell and Boston University.
"I was always going to apply to the U of I. There's plenty of schools that don't use it," he added, including Oklahoma, Washington and Wisconsin, where he also applied.
Zoe Kharasch of Libertyville said friends told her the Common App took more work anyway.
"I heard it wasn't really worth it," she said.