More than 500 schools across the country, including some in Maryland, use the Common Application, which enables students to apply to multiple colleges by filling out one online form.
But it turns out that the organization's licensing agreement might conflict with state law, raising questions about whether the four Maryland public schools using the system can continue.
At stake is exposure to thousands of potential applicants and, Morgan State University officials believe, a possible enrollment boost. The historically black college, which would like to join the Common Application, expects to be down several hundred students this fall.
Assistant Attorney General Elena Langrill told Morgan representatives this month, during a Board of Regents meeting on the Baltimore campus, that state schools cannot legally enter the agreement. She pointed to one provision in particular, which says the schools may have to follow certain laws of Virginia, where the nonprofit Common Application is based.
"As a state agency, Morgan is barred from accepting that. You can take it to the Board of Public Works and try to get them to agree to a waiver, but just in terms of general law, as a state agency, Morgan cannot agree to be bound by the laws of the state of Virginia," Langrill said.
She said the same goes for other state schools, including the four now using the Common Application: Towson and Salisbury universities, St. Mary's College of Maryland and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Morgan has since asked for legal clarification from the attorney general's office. And the four member schools said they are consulting with counsel to find out whether they unwittingly broke state law.
Common Application Executive Director Rob Killion said he's never heard such concerns from any "members, public or private, in or out of Maryland" and that the licensing agreement has since 2010 included a stipulation exempting public institutions from having to follow Virginia laws if it poses a problem.
In an interview, Langrill said superiors at the attorney general's office were reviewing that section in particular to "make sure they're protected under that provision."
A spokesman for the attorney general's office declined to comment.
Morgan President David Wilson said last week that he sent the attorney general's office a letter asking for guidance.
"It is somewhat surprising that you have one sector of public higher education in Maryland that is [using the Common Application], and then we, Morgan, are basically being told that we can't," said Wilson, who has been advocating to join the Common Application for nearly three years.
The membership organization gives students a streamlined way to apply to more than 500 colleges using a single online form (the initial software for which was developed by a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University). Students like it because they don't have to deal with individual applications, and colleges like it because it frequently increases their pool of applicants.
"School administrators, guidance counselors, teachers, parents and students tell us that the Common Application makes it more convenient for students who are applying to multiple schools to apply to UMBC," Yvette Mozie-Ross, UMBC associate provost for enrollment management, said in a statement. "We have seen a substantial increase in the number of applications we have received since becoming a Common Application member institution in fall 2010."
Dinah Winnick, a spokeswoman for the university, said UMBC is "gathering information" about Langrill's assessment.
"At this time, it is too early to comment," she said in an email. "We will share additional information as we can."
Aaron Basko, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Salisbury University, said the school has "seen an application increase" since joining the Common Application in 2011. More than 80 percent of its applicants submitted their information that way last year.
Towson, too, said the Common Application has given the school "a larger pool of students from which to choose," but spokeswoman Gay Pinder said it has not boosted enrollment.
This month, Morgan said it expected to be short more than 200 undergraduates this year because of financial aid changes. Officials suggested that more applicants might lead to more students.
However, none of the participating schools said the Common Application has boosted enrollment. And St. Mary's College saw a drop. The honors college switched to the Common Application in 2011, and the number of first-time, full-time freshmen has fallen each year since. This year, St. Mary's expects 384 first-time, full-time freshmen — about 90 shy of its goal.
St. Mary's has asked an assistant attorney general who advises the school to look into the legality of its relationship with the Common Application.
Thirteen Maryland schools participate in the Common Application: the four public institutions and nine private schools (Johns Hopkins, Loyola, Notre Dame of Maryland and Stevenson universities, and Goucher, Hood, McDaniel, St. John's and Washington colleges).
The Maryland public schools charge students $50 per application except for Towson, which charges $45. The Common Application charges the schools a $500 annual fee, along with $3.75 to $4.75 per application depending on the type of membership a school holds.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the developer of the nonprofit's software. The initial software was developed by a Johns Hopkins University graduate, but has since been replaced.
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