Over the last decade, the internet has made it much easier for students to apply to college, especially thanks to services like the “Common App.” For the nearly 700 schools now part of the Common Application—the nation’s leading standardized online college-application portal—students can browse by name, state, or region, by the type of institution (public or private), and by whether it’s co-ed or single-sex. Clicking on a college takes students to a brief profile of the school and then an invitation: “Ready to apply?”
And now that students can apply to more colleges with the click of a few buttons, they are doing exactly that. In 2013, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), 32 percent of college freshmen applied to seven or more colleges—up 10 percentage points from 2008. Almost all of this growth has been online. In the 2015-16 admissions cycle, over 920,000 students used the Common App, more than double the number in 2008–09.
On the one hand, the internet has been good news for college access. Officials at the Common App, for example, say 31 percent of the college applicants who used the portal in 2015–16 were first-generation students. Students and their families are also now smarter consumers of what’s likely to be among the biggest ticket items they will ever buy: a college education. The internet has also been great news for college marketing departments, which can now reach many more students—and more cheaply—than they could via old-fashioned snail mail.
But the growing piles of applications are also causing problems—both for colleges and for students. While schools might welcome the rush of national exposure from a broader pool of prospects, they also increasingly face the problem of sorting out qualified, serious applicants—students who not only have the right academic chops but would actually enroll if accepted—from the scrum. And so long as the sheer volume of applications continues to rise, the odds of colleges’ guessing wrong rise too—which, in fact, is what’s happening, with dire consequences.
By sheer strength of numbers, ideologically moderate Americans should be the most potent force in politics. Since at least 1980, self-identified moderates have outnumbered both liberals and conservatives in presidential exit polls, comprising 41 percent of voters in 2012. Moderates are also a plurality in 25 states, according to 2014 data from Gallup.
Yet this moderate strength seems nowhere evident in Congress. Among House Democrats, the moderate Blue Dog and New Democratic coalitions have shrunk by nearly half since 2010. And among Republicans, the Tea Party’s ascendance has purged most of the GOP’s few remaining moderates. Congressional polarization today, say political scientists Christopher Hare, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, is at its worst since Reconstruction.
One key step toward reversing this polarization is to replenish the stable of moderates in Congress. Moderates can bridge divides, encourage bipartisanship, and check ideological excesses. And given the vast pools of moderate voters, Congress should have more moderates than it does now to reflect the share of moderates in the electorate. The current political system, however, effectively disenfranchises moderate voters.
There’s one solution that can help reverse that dismal trend: creating more at-large seats in the House of Representatives. If every state with more than two representatives allocated just one seat to an at-large member (while also redrawing its remaining seats), moderates in those states could better exercise their plurality strength as they do in other statewide elections, such as those for the Senate and the White House. And while the remaining geographically determined districts would become somewhat larger as a result, this system would also grant each voter two representatives in the House: one from the voter’s district, and one from the voter’s state.
It’s tough to make it as a moderate in Congress these days.
Across the country, competitive purple districts have been gerrymandered into oblivion, replaced by seats that are safely red or blue. Activists at both extremes show no mercy toward elected officials who venture to advocate compromise. Even former House majority leader Eric Cantor — hardly moderate — fell victim to a 2014 primary challenge from a tea-party-backed opponent after his immigration stance ran afoul of the GOP’s far right wing. But perhaps most prohibitive: Being a moderate costs far more than being extreme. And the increasing expense means most moderates can’t compete.
Consider the case of Democratic members of the House, where long-standing, self-defined coalitions — New Democrats and Blue Dogs on the one hand and the Progressive Caucus on the other — separate moderates and liberals with reasonable clarity. (Members must apply to join, attend regular meetings and remain in good standing.) In the past three election cycles, self-described moderate lawmakers spent roughly twice as much as their liberal counterparts to win or defend their seats.
In 2014, for example, direct spending by members of the moderate New Democrat and Blue Dog coalitions averaged $2.01 million per campaign, according to an analysis of data derived from OpenSecrets.org, the site of the Center for Responsive Politics. In contrast, members of the liberal Progressive Caucus each spent an average of $1.07 million on their races.
This disparity is even more extreme — greater than 3 to 1 — when all campaign spending is included. Counting spending by opponents and outside groups, the average campaign in a New Democrat or Blue Dog district cost $5.2 million in 2014, compared with an average of $1.57 million in Progressive Caucus districts.
And as ideological partisanship increases, this centrist premium is growing. For every dollar that the average Progressive Caucus member directly spent to defend his or her seat in 2014, the average moderate lawmaker spent $1.93. By comparison, moderates shelled out $1.54 for every campaign dollar spent by liberals by 2012 and $1.65 in 2010.