It's an online system. It tries to make the complex process of applying for an important public good a bit easier. But recently it's been plagued by glitches, leaving people stressed. And angry. And questioning whether the system itself can survive.
It's the Common App, of course. Established in 1975, the Common Application is a standardized college application that enables easy submission to multiple institutions. More than 500 colleges and universities now accept it.
The nonprofit organization that produces the Common App launched its fourth generation online system -- promising to simplify students' lives -- on Aug. 1. But the simple thing didn't quite work out. Students have confronted frozen pages, troubles with formatting essays, duplicate fees and difficulties getting into personal accounts. To diminish this new round of anxieties generated by an already stressful process, some schools have extended early admission deadlines. Not that the offices themselves have gotten away scot-free. They have reported trouble getting students' information; some worry about being able to make acceptance decisions on time.
"We did test the system. But what we couldn't test was tens of thousands of people hitting the system at the same time using multiple kinds of browsers," said Scott Anderson, the Common Application's senior director for policy, according to NPR.
Sound familiar? Here's the first sentence of a Washington Post story published yesterday about another website famed for technical troubles lately: "Private contractors in charge of building the federal online health insurance marketplace testified Thursday that the administration went ahead with the Oct. 1 launch of HealthCare.gov despite insufficient testing."
OK, it's not completely fair to compare the Common App with HealthCare.gov. Aside from a bunch of teenagers, their parents, guidance counselors and college admissions officers, not many people depend on the Common Application's success. There certainly aren't critics doing everything in their power to encourage its failure, including shutting down the U.S. government. (That said, I imagine there are some procrastinating high school seniors who hope to milk these glitches for as many deadline extensions as possible. As the past two years have shown, storms also come in handy.)
The Common App's flaws aren't fatal. Many students have been able to submit their applications and some major problems appear to have been fixed in recent days. When push comes to shove, the organization has a captive audience; young people aren't going to give up applying to college because a webpage isn't loading properly.
The Common App's main competition is the Universal College Application. Princeton University, Tufts University, Trinity College and Hampshire College have started accepting the UCA as an alternative to the glitchy Common App. (Harvard University and others already accepted it.) But that brings the UCA total to only 36 institutions, leaving it a long way from posing serious competition to the Common App.
There's still time to fix the process before January's flood of application deadlines. Like President Barack Obama, who issued an update this week on Healthcare.gov's troubles that was more mea than culpa, the Common Application released a "Statement of Commitment" last week that acknowledged difficulties without apologizing too heartily for them.
"As an organization, we have been too slow to respond. That ends today," it stated. It promised to send daily updates to counselors and noted, "We pledge to communicate as openly as possible regarding the challenges we face and our progress in addressing them. Moving forward, should we observe a widespread problem, we will inform you immediately using social media, even if the only information we can provide is an acknowledgement of the issue and a promise to share updates as they become available."
Indeed, the Common App has used the very doohickey plaguing it -- Web-based technology -- to help assuage its audience. Daily updates and details about bugs and fixes have been issued on the organization’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. The transparency hasn't cured all the underlying ills, however; students still complain of problems and a lack of help.
If I were applying to college again (please, please, don't make me), I imagine the updates -- even if they don't resolve specific problems -- could ease some of the mounting pressure. HealthCare.gov, which faces higher hurdles and is both more hated and more historically important, might want to take note.
Young people can now stay on their parent's plans until age 26. That gives the federal government about eight more years to get its act together before the crop of high school seniors currently struggling with Commonapp.org find themselves flummoxed by HealthCare.gov.
(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)