In the mid-1990s, a newly minted Johns Hopkins University doctor of education with scant computer skills approached a tiny Virginia organization with a well-timed proposal: Let would-be college freshmen submit a single application to multiple schools using something called the World Wide Web.
Fewer than 1,300 applications were transmitted electronically during the Common Application Inc.'s first year of online service, using software developed and licensed by Joshua J. Reiter's Baltimore startup, ApplicationsOnline LLC. But Reiter's technology helped to revolutionize the college admissions industry - this year, would-be freshmen sent upward of a million online Common Application submissions to about 300 colleges.
Now, that consortium of colleges has decided to use a competing technology vendor and has told Reiter it no longer requires his services. So today, from a cramped and Spartan office on University Parkway, Reiter fires a shot - some would say a long shot - across the bow of his only major client by launching a competing product: the optimistically named Universal College Application.
Unlike the Common Application, which is used mostly by selective private colleges, Reiter hopes to build a huge network of common-application schools that includes many public campuses - which most U.S. students attend.
As four young employees tested the program this week in the sweltering two-bedroom apartment that passes for ApplicationsOnline's headquarters, Reiter, 45, acknowledged the uphill battle he faces.
"We helped to develop the Common Application online. We got the colleges to use it, we got the colleges to join. Now we have to tell them about the Universal College Application and it's the same software, the same interface, the same people." He smiled. "We're our own worst enemy."
Then again, having successfully processed 3 million online applications for hundreds of colleges, he has built a decade of trust with his customers. So while the Universal College Application launches today with only 13 "founding members," they include Harvard University, Duke University, Washington University in St. Louis and Hopkins.
"He's very smart," Harvard's admission director, Marlyn McGrath Lewis, said of Reiter. "My IT people, who are really, really good, just think that he's fabulous and has been a pleasure to work with."
Reiter hopes that a vote of confidence from some of the country's most elite schools will help him sell a common application to the average college. He might be once again putting most of his eggs in one basket, but it has worked for him before.
After graduating from Hopkins in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in economics, Reiter attended business school at New York University. He returned to Baltimore as a sales representative for IBM, while pursuing part time a doctorate from Hopkins.
In 1994, he had his Ed.D and a voluntary buyout offer from IBM. It was the dawn of the dot-com era and Reiter, with a programming-savvy partner, decided to jump on the Internet bandwagon and form the precursor to ApplicationsOnline.
Their first project was an online undergraduate application for Hopkins, which went live in 1996. Reiter planned to pitch other campuses, but Hopkins' enrollment dean, Robert J. Massa, suggested he go after a bigger fish: the Common Application.
Hopkins had long been a member of a nonprofit association of private colleges that since the 1970s had accepted a generic paper application. Its goal was to simplify the search process for students (and their teachers) who were applying to colleges that required such time-consuming submissions as personal essays and guidance counselor recommendations.
When the Common Application went online in 1998, it was not an overnight success. For several years, Reiter worked from an apartment in the Carlyle building and taught college part time to supplement his income.
"We had 1,252 applications for the whole '98-'99 season," Reiter recalled. Last year, more than 60,000 Common Applications were submitted through the North Baltimore company's computers on its busiest day, Reiter said. In fiscal year 2005, his company was paid more than $1.6 million from the Common Application, according to tax returns.
The growth reflected a tidal change in the college applications world. More colleges were both joining the Common Application consortium and establishing their own online applications. The ease of applying online has led to an increase in the number of students applying to multiple colleges.
Throughout the boom years, Reiter - who bought out his original partner in 2001 - adhered to a philosophy of fiscal conservatism. He has usually had only two or three full-time employees, supplemented by paid interns from Hopkins, and has retained bare-bones office space in the Carlyle - near a dentist and hair salon.
That conservatism came in handy when the board of the Common Application decided last year to redesign the popular form and hire a bigger technology firm.
Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application Inc., said he doesn't consider the Universal College Application a competitor, but his nonprofit is now trying to entice - through lower fees - member colleges to use the Common Application exclusively. Nearly 90 colleges now accept only the Common Application. But that emphasis on exclusivity could end up pushing some colleges to Reiter's company or other upstart competitors.
"I think it makes sense that colleges would want to have choices in the same way that students want to have choices," said Duke's undergraduate admissions dean Christoph Guttentag, whose school will accept Reiter's new application.
Despite such concerns, the baker's dozen of colleges taking a chance on the Universal College Application aren't rooting for Reiter to beat up on his old client. Most of them are already dues-paying members of the Common Application and have little but praise for it.
What they want Reiter's service to do is something the Common Application can't: be truly common.
"Hopkins would love to share membership in a consortium with public colleges," said Hopkins undergraduate admissions director John Latting. "That's where most people apply." Despite an embarrassment of academically qualified applicants, Harvard and Hopkins and their elite ilk still struggle to find high-achieving minority and low-income students, who are more likely to apply to state schools because of low cost and geographic proximity, officials said.
Most public schools can't use the Common Application because the consortium accepts only campuses that require teacher recommendations and personal essays. Most state schools rely on easily quantifiable measures of student achievement, such as high school coursework, grades and standardized test scores.
Only about 15 of 318 Common Application members are state schools. Killion estimates there are about 400 colleges nationwide that would meet his group's membership criteria.
That leaves at least 1,600 additional nonprofit four-year U.S. colleges that Reiter could, in theory, bring into his fold. Many of them, however, have already invested in campus-specific online applications, or they belong to a multi-campus state system that has its own common application.
To demonstrate to prospective customers his company's ability to attract the under-served college populations that almost all colleges say they want, Reiter said he will be aggressively marketing the Universal College Application to low-income students, partnering with nonprofit organizations that can provide them with computer access and mentoring.
That approach, if it's successful, might just sway Barbara Gill, admissions director at the University of Maryland, College Park, she said. But like many other public-college admissions officers, Gill said her college remains protective of its own online application.
Likewise, the director of undergraduate admission of the University of California said the 209,000-student, 10-campus system is content with its internal common application. "I am not familiar with this company or with this product," said Susan A. Wilbur.
Reiter's goal for his first year on the market is modest. "It's to get our name out there," he said. "For nine years we provided services to the Common App but we never really told anyone who we were.
"Now, they'll know."