Ethical College Admissions: Questions From Vietnam

A student wonders whether an admissions service is being ethical. Jim Jump, in the debut of his column at Admissions Insider, has some doubts.

May 8, 2017

One of the interesting developments in writing this column -- previously published on its own site --  is that over the past year or so I have had a number of topics suggested to me by readers. I have had several college admission deans contact me regarding ethical dilemmas they faced, and have also had a number of high school colleagues contact me with suggestions for topics.

A couple of weeks ago I experienced a first when I received an e-mail from a student who had somehow found me. The student is a senior at a high school in Hanoi and had questions about the ethics of some of the practices used by college application counseling centers that operate in Vietnam.

I have omitted the student’s name and high school to protect privacy, but here’s the e-mail:

After witnessing unethical practices around me in the U.S. college application process, I now intend to do a workshop on ethics in college application, and I was wondering if I could get your opinion on this matter.

The essence of ethical issues in U.S. college application in Vietnam revolves around centers that provide college application counseling services. I have done research into the practices of some of the most problematic centers, and I would like to ask for your opinion on some issues:

The student then asked the following five questions:

1. Is it ethically correct for the counselor to ask for the student's Common Application account and password? Why or why not?

2. A center provides a special program. In the document that provides details of this program, the center states that the students will be assisted in applying to 20 colleges. In addition, the student will not be charged additional fees for applying to colleges among the top 10 (based on U.S. News' rankings) or among the Ivy League. The center then notes that, usually, for students who are not offered the special program, the fee for one such school is $3,000. What do you think is unethical among all this, and why?

3. Is it ethically correct for a center to organize its own events and have its students perform important roles in the events in order to polish their applications? Why or why not?

4. Is it ethically correct for a center to assist its student in organizing their own events or extracurricular activities to polish their applications? Why or why not?

5. A center notes in its contract with a student that if the student is admitted on the Restrictive Early Action plan, the center is relieved of its responsibility to help the students with any further applications. The center states that it will only continue helping the student if the student chooses to apply to schools among the Ivy League? It this ethically correct? Why or why not?

The e-mail concluded, “The U.S. college application scene in Vietnam is riddled with unethical practices, such as ghostwriting essays, fabricating/distorting extracurricular activities... While, sadly, I cannot provide solid proof of this, it is all happening.”

Let me respond to the questions and then make a couple of comments about the larger issues involved.

Asking for a student’s Common Application account and password is suspicious at best. I see no good reason why a counselor would need access. Having access creates the temptation and conditions to edit or rewrite the student’s part of the application, and that would be unethical. There are ways for the student to have the counselor review the application without giving access to the account and password. The Common Application has just announced a change for next year that will allow students to give access to advisers who have a Common App recommender account to view and comment on the student’s application. The Coalition Application already provides that option.

Regarding questions 3 and 4, there is nothing necessarily unethical in a center organizing events or helping a student organizing events. What would be unethical is misrepresentation or embellishment of the student’s role for “polishing” the student’s application, which is, I suspect, exactly the point. The real question is whether admissions officers see through these manufactured activities and accomplishments. I suspect that admissions professionals are unimpressed, certainly less impressed, than the center is leading students to believe.

The most interesting questions are those surrounding the special program and the center’s responsibility for helping students once they are admitted through Restricted Early Action.

A follow-up e-mail revealed that to be invited into the special program a student had to have at least 2300 on the old SAT. That seems to confirm my suspicion that the special program is for students who have a good chance of being admitted to the Ivies and other highly-selective colleges and universities. They are not charged the normal fee because of their potential for helping the center claim success in helping clients get into the “top” colleges. In that regard they are “loss leaders,” assisted not for their benefit but for the marketing benefit of the center in attracting new clients. Is that unethical? A Kantian view of ethics would say that anything we do out of self-interest is at odds with what is ethical. There are also ethical issues related to equity arising out of differential treatment of clients based on their perceived value to the center.

The conclusion that the center is operating out of self-interest rather than student interest is supported by the contract provision relieving the center of responsibility once a student is admitted Restricted Early Action, except in case of applications to the Ivy League. Ethical college counseling practice is about helping a student find the right fit, not only to gain admission to one type of institution. A counselor with this practice is concerned about its own success rather than the student’s success, and that is unethical. (Note: It would be different if the student were admitted under an Early Decision plan, where the student is committed to attend if accepted.)

There has been considerable discussion about the use by American colleges and universities of agents to recruit internationally, and much of that discussion has been about the use of per-head compensation for those agents. My Vietnam correspondent has shed a light on practices that are far more unsavory and troubling. The encouraging news is that this student is bright enough and principled enough to understand that the status quo for these centers is also wrong, and determined to do something about it.



Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach, and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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