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The idea began with 15 private 4-year colleges who wanted to improve their marketing for new students by pioneering a common, standardized application form that every institution would share. The prospective student would complete one application, which could be sent to all 15 colleges and thereby save time and increase his or her chances of getting admitted to a college without endless repetitive applications. While it sounded like a great idea, there were not many buyers.

The Common Application (CA) association began offering a common application in 1975 and today, thirty-five years later, it has reached 400 colleges (barely 20% of the 4-year institutions in the US).

From the beginning, the CA process appeared like a solution in search of a problem. Admission officers wanted the freedom of having their institution-specific application and did not see the student having to complete several applications as a particular problem.

Today there are many alternatives to the CA. There’s the Universal College Application (UCA), the Common Black College Application (CBCA) and the SuperAPP but none of them have increased participation markedly. The UCA, introduced in 2007, has added fewer than 75 colleges to the list using a common application. Of the 103 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) only 35 have signed up to the CBCA. SuperAPP, a private-sector effort, which began just this year, is more promising. They claim to provide for the individual requirements of 1,400 of the 4-year colleges, but a call to six admission departments of listed members revealed that no applications have been received by any of them this year. SuperAPP, while eliminating many of the limitations of the other systems, still has to attract enough applicants to make participation on the part of colleges and universities pay off.

I bring this to your attention because an even more important effort, which I wrote about last week, the Tuning policy of the Bologna Process, has the potential of going the way of CA. Such slow growth implementing Tuning nationally would spell failure for America, not just American higher education.

Tuning would be fully useful only if the vast majority of colleges and universities signed up; and then the content of each bachelor degree would become more transparent and easier to assess. It would facilitate mobility, be informative to employers and new applicants and modify our understanding in higher education of what we do and how we do it.

The potential benefits of Tuning are not easily appreciated and this innovation could go the way of CA if it weren’t for Lumina. The Tuning policy has found a creative and powerful friend in the Lumina Foundation.

Lumina’s plan for Tuning is faculty-led and their process is a blend of their policy-making and community-persuading method. There’s an interesting video online that provides a synthesis of what Tuning is all about and a look at the early stages of the process and the challenges that remain. You can access it here: http://www.luminafoundation.org/podcasts/tuning-adventures-in-learning.html

Given what is at stake, America’s competitiveness and Americans’ social and economic welfare, Lumina’s agenda could not be more important. However, if 35 years from now, Tuning has only been adopted by 20% of the colleges and universities, the process would have failed, we as a nation would have failed and our standard of living would have declined to that of a third world nation. Tuning brings cohesion, cooperation and efficiency to our individualistic, uncooperative and inefficient system. While that sounds great to me, I’m afraid the higher education community likes things just the way they are.

Lumina has undertaken this challenge with their eyes open. They have also opened their heart and their wallet recognizing their special role. “As the nation’s largest private foundation focused exclusively on getting more Americans into and through higher education, Lumina has a unique leadership opportunity—and responsibility—to create a national sense of urgency in order to stimulate action in higher education and public policy to achieve the big goal. Lumina Foundation will be a catalyst in America’s pursuit of the goal and the critical outcomes.”  To create a national sense of urgency, that’s what needs to happen before Tuning can work. I’ll tell you from personal experience, that’s what herding cats is like.