Choice Architecture and the Common Application: Ordering Effects in Online Settings


The proliferation of online college applications paired with application aggregation services such as the Common Application (CA) dramatically increases the scope for choice architects to affect application behavior. Choice architects provide information that allows students to make choices about where to apply. I provide evidence for two settings in which students are affected by the way in which choices are ordered. First, when local schools join the CA, the increased college search undertaken by ACT-takers depends on the options presented on the local school’s website. If the CA is the only way to apply to the local school or the CA option is listed first, applicants send more than two additional ACT score reports (a 44% increase in volume). Applicants don’t increase score report volume when the local school lists the CA option second. In the second part of the paper, I show that CA usage induced by a local CA school joining its membership makes ACT takers more likely to send score reports to schools higher in the alphabet. The CA website’s search functionality returns alphabetized lists, which drives this behavior. These results imply that college applicant behavior deviates from rational choice theory in obvious ways. The results also indicate that applicant decision-making is sensitive not only to the amount of information provided but also how the information is provided.

Darren Page
Darren Page
PhD candidate in Economics

Darren Page is a doctoral candidate in economics at The University of Iowa. He is available for interviews for the 2020-2021 job market.