Ethical College Admissions: Luring Students

Jim Jump considers some of the issues raised in recruiting tactics used after May 1.

June 12, 2017

One of the foundations of the competitive four-year college admissions process is the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date. May 1 is the date on which students are supposed to have an enrollment deposit at one (and only one) college or university.

May 1 is a convention. There is nothing sacred about that particular date; it has been agreed upon to provide structure to the process and protection for both students and institutions. May 1 functions both as a finish line for the admissions process and as an ethical cornerstone for the admissions profession. Without May 1 college admission might easily deteriorate into a Wild West, with each institution doing its own thing without regard for the common good.

May 1 is also a fiction, or perhaps more accurately an unrealized ideal, for many colleges. For rolling or open admissions institutions May 1 is just a date on the calendar. There are also colleges and universities that would like May 1 to be the end of the admissions process but aren’t that fortunate.

So what happens when May 1 comes and goes and an institution finds itself short of its enrollment goal? What options does an admissions office have besides uttering the (in this instance ironic) international distress call, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”?

Obviously a number of colleges use waiting lists as a way to plug holes in enrollment after May 1. But a recent New York Times article highlighted a relatively new phenomenon. The article named several private liberal arts colleges that during the first week of May contacted accepted students who had not responded to the offer of admission to inquire whether additional financial aid might increase the student’s interest in enrolling.

The Times article points out that the practice raises ethical questions, which makes it ripe for our consideration. So what are the issues?

The first question is whether it is inappropriate for a college to contact a student after May 1. That depends largely on what you think May 1 signifies. If May 1 is the “finish line,” the point where every student has a college home, then colleges who haven’t heard from accepted students should assume that those students have deposited elsewhere. Contacting students who have enrolled elsewhere constitutes an unethical practice known as “poaching.”

But the number of students who haven’t deposited but also haven’t declined the offer of admission is higher than one might think. The vice president for enrollment at one public flagship university reports that only 20-25 percent of non-enrollees bother to inform the institution that they will not be attending. If that figure is representative, then for any college there is a large cohort of accepted students for whom the college has no idea what their plans are. That’s annoying when your freshman class is full and tragic when you are short of your enrollment goal.

That issue may be systemic. I make sure to remind my seniors each spring to inform the colleges to which they’ve been accepted but will not be attending, so that those institutions can make decisions about admitting those on waiting lists, but I don’t have any way to know that’s happened. It is also the case that many colleges make it obvious and easy to accept an offer of admission but impossible to find out how to decline the offer.

So is a college within its rights to reach out after May 1 to students who applied and were accepted but haven’t either deposited or informed that they have other plans? I would argue yes. It may be likely that most of those students have made other plans, but it is not poaching unless you know for sure that a student has already committed to another institution. From a practical standpoint, the easiest way to add to freshman enrollment once May 1 passes is with students who are already in your applicant pool.

Contacting accepted students who haven’t responded after May 1 is legitimate, but is it ethical? That depends on the nature of the communication.

I think it is perfectly ethical for a college to contact non-responders to inquire if they are still considering enrolling or if they have deposited elsewhere. If the student responds that they have enrolled elsewhere, that ends the conversation. There also needs to be a statute of limitations. If no response has been received by May 15, the student should be considered to be no longer interested (unless, of course, the student initiates the communication). 

If the student responds and indicates that he or she is uncommitted and still interested, then the college may tease out the issues preventing the student from enrolling, including the possibility of an additional financial discount. I don’t like that “pricing strategy” because it resembles the airline industry, and I don’t think the airline industry should be the model for college admission’s approach to pricing or customer service.

What I find probably unethical and definitely unsavory is the behavior discussed in the Times article, contacting students after May 1 with the implied promise of an additional discount “if you enroll now.” One normally hears that kind of message at 3 a.m. on cable television infomercials. It sounds desperate (and probably is). It sends a message that the college considers college selection a purely economic decision.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory is built around what he called the “Categorical Imperative,” the idea that you should act only on maxims that can be applied universally.  In other words, in order to determine whether an act is ethical or not discern what it would mean for everyone to act in the same way. What would be the outcome if every college and university contacted admitted students who hadn’t responded with offers of additional financial aid? Chaos.

The May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date has been the battleground for most attempts to subvert the National Association for College Admission Counseling's Statement of Principles of Good Practice, the code of ethical behavior for the admissions profession, in recent years.  Most of the questionable practices involve coercing deposits prior to May 1. We may be entering an era where there are as many attempts to subvert the ethics of the profession after May 1, where attempts to poach students become more common.

The headline in the Times article uses the verb “lure” to describe the practices identified in the article itself. Do we want to be a profession that “lures” students? We definitely don’t want to be a profession that is seen as “lurid.”

Admissions officers should agree to poach only eggs, not students.



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.


Back to Top