More than 80 colleges are creating a website where students will be able to apply to dozens of them and get help along the way.
Some of the top names in higher education are joining the effort under a new group called the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, whose goal is to make the application process easier, especially for minority and low-income students.
The website gives students one place to send their applications, but it also gives them tools to get started years in advance. On the site, students will be able to request advice from college admissions offices, and they can create digital portfolios with the help of their teachers and counselors.
Members of the coalition include private universities such as Harvard and Stanford and public counterparts such as the University of Virginia and Ohio State University.
The colleges came together to fix a problem that researchers have noted for years: Complex admissions processes deter students from applying, and those who come from low-income families can't afford the counselors and classes within reach of their wealthier peers.
High schools, for example, can already buy software to help counselors track their students through the application process, but many can't afford it.
"This is a free tool that will be open to counselors in those types of schools and even in community-based organizations," said Zina Evans, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Florida, a member of the coalition.
The website is one more in a series of attempts to improve application rates nationwide. More than 600 colleges now accept the standardized Common Application, and many offer waivers for application fees. High schools routinely host application events hoping to give all students a shot at college.
Last year, the White House called on schools to step up their efforts to get students into college and on track to degrees. The schools in the coalition have individually tried many different approaches to address the challenges, said Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University.
"We have come to the conclusion that we can have a much bigger impact on student access and completion if we work together," Quinlan said.
Unlike the Common Application, which aims to create a uniform process among schools, the new website aims to help students dive deeper into many distinct applications. It will give them a place to store their checklists and essays and invite anyone to provide feedback and editing.
Each college will have its own portal where students can submit applications, but they'll all be accessible through the same site. The portfolio tool will let students add any extra information they want. Artists can include samples of their work, and musicians can link to performance videos.
Colleges said they envision students using the website as early as their freshman year of high school. Some colleges will let students start applying through the website next summer.