One of the more puzzling stories complicating relations between the Common Application and the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is the ongoing lawsuit between CollegeNET, the Coalition’s technology developer, and the Common App, the industry’s largest and most powerful online college application provider.
And this isn’t a new development. CollegeNET first filed its antitrust lawsuit against the Common Application in May of 2014—long before the Coalition was organized and launched. But for whatever reason, the lawsuit only received cursory coverage in in the education press and many in the admissions industry, including decision-makers at the college level, are not particularly aware of its status.
The short version of the story is that CollegeNET alleges that it lost more than 200 customers in the last 10 to 15 years because of “anticompetitive and exclusionary conduct,” on the part of the Common Application, which used to charge far cheaper rates to colleges that used its application exclusively, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. While the Common Application has discontinued that practice, CollegeNET in its appeals claims the Common App used various tactics to “monopolize the market” and exclude competitors.
In an email to The Chronicle, Jim Wolfston, CollegeNET’s founder and chief executive, outlined changes he hoped would result from the lawsuit. One is the elimination of the Common App’s “equal treatment” requirement, under which members agree to promote all applications equally in communications and on websites, and charge the same fee for each.
“We think admissions officers ought to be able to state their preferences clearly,” Wolfston told The Chronicle, “and that vendors should earn market position on quality and innovation.”
So far, judges have dismissed the case twice but an appeal filed in May of 2015 is currently making its way through the courts.
In an effort to update Common App community on the status of the litigation, Jenny Rickard, executive director of the Common Application, recently sent an email outlining “relevant events” related to the case and shared her perspective on its impact on the organization.
“We view CollegeNET’s claims, and continued appeal, as an attempt to misuse the antitrust laws to override the normal give and take of competition,” writes Rickard. “Complete dismissal of antitrust claims is relatively rare, and the court’s ruling in this case reflects the baselessness of CollegeNET’s claims.”
She goes on to assure members that while the Common App is in a “sound financial position” and has the resources to defend the organization, “we would prefer to spend our members’ fees continuing to innovate and expand our outreach and access programs in support of our mission.”
To date, the nonprofit Common Application has spent “several million dollars” defending against what Rickard characterizes as “frivolous claims by a for-profit, privately-held company”—a company with a deep association with the Coalition.
While the Common App continues to expand and reports growth suggesting increased earnings, the topic of finances and the impact of the lawsuit were addressed at the member conference last spring. And the most recent publicly-available tax statement shows that the Common App reported a loss of over $2.7 million, in the fiscal year ending June 2014. Since this filing, the Common App has brought a large technical staff in-house (no longer subcontracting with Hobsons) and purchased condo space to house them.
According to Rickard, the lawsuit continues with oral arguments and a final ruling expected sometime between 2017 and 2018. And it appears that expenses related to the lawsuit won’t be going away anytime soon.
Nancy Griesemer is an independent educational consultant and founder of College Explorations LLC. She has written extensively and authoritatively about the college admissions process and related topics since 2009.