Ethical College Admissions: Economics Once Again

Jim Jump considers the conflicts between doing the right thing, doing the right thing to help the bottom line and doing what you can afford.

July 24, 2017

Is it ethical for a college to offer a lower discount rate to a prospective student who is likely to enroll than to one who is on the fence? Is it ethical to wait-list a student who is at the top of a college’s applicant pool because you assume you are their “safety school”?

Those are among the questions raised in a recent op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Ethics 101 for Admissions Officers.” The essay by Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University as well as a professor of economics, and Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern, is adapted from their new book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities.

The piece didn’t cover any territory not previously tackled in this forum, but the author of a column with a presumptuous title like “Ethical College Admissions” should probably have advanced beyond Ethics 101. There is, however, a larger issue embedded in the piece worth considering.

What is the interplay between economics and ethics in college admission? Are they competing values? Is there an inherent tension between the two?

There is no question that higher education is a business, and that net tuition revenue is one goal of a college or university’s admissions process. Depending on where an institution is on the food chain, net revenue may be the ultimate value. But to what degree should college admission and college choice be driven by economic concerns?

Do we want students and families making decisions about where to go to college based only on price? I would argue no, that college choice should be about value rather than price alone, but in a climate where there is concern, even fear, among consumers about the cost of higher education and student debt, price may become a bigger driver of college choice.

I have recently talked to a couple of admissions dean/director friends who reported seeing competitor institutions throwing money at applicants, sometimes offering $10,000 above what my sources considered generous financial aid packages. That smells of desperation, but we may be at a point where we need a new paradigm. Several years ago the University of the South tried to lead a revolution by lowering sticker price and reducing financial aid, but there were few if any followers. I have long felt, though, that there is a market for a higher education equivalent of Walmart.

Is there anything wrong with institutions making admission and financial aid decisions with economics in mind? As Schapiro and Morson’s article points out, today higher education has the ability to use big data to predict who is likely to enroll and what different applicants may be willing to pay. There is a cottage industry of enrollment management consultants using sophisticated algorithms to advise colleges whom to target and how much to discount.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. That’s true whether you are cloning dinosaurs or managing enrollment. College admission may be partly about generating revenue, but there are other competing values such as diversity and quality of student. One of those other values is equity and fairness. College admission is partly a public trust, and it is hard not to imagine the public being outraged to learn that a student is being punished for demonstrating interest.

The tension between economics and ethics in college admission is not new. Nearly 25 years ago I served as a National Association for College Admission Counseling Assembly delegate during its heated discussion about need-blind admission. At that time the ethical expectation was that colleges would practice need-blind admission, and that encompassed two different tenets. One was that admission decisions would be made without taking into consideration a student’s financial need, and the other was that colleges would meet the full need of every accepted student.

An increasing number of colleges argued that it was impossible to uphold both ideals given the economic realities they faced. Other delegates argued that backing away from the existing understanding of need blindness would place college admission on a slippery slope, harming both students and the profession.

My contribution to the debate, referencing my previous life as an ethics professor, was suggesting that the most important ethical principle at stake was transparency, that institutions were obligated to be truthful about their practices. The NACAC Assembly ultimately voted to uphold the existing need-blind standard, but it was already clear that change was coming, that colleges with good intentions were no longer going to be able to remain need blind in the traditional sense.

Fast-forward to today. Need-blind admission is not extinct, but it’s an endangered species. There are very few institutions that are truly need blind, many more that are need aware, at least at the margins, and others that qualify as “need squint” or “need peek.” But transparency as a guiding ethical principle remains front and center.

The new iteration of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice (likely to be renamed) is organized around the ethical principles that should guide the college admission and college counseling profession, and first and foremost among those principles is truth and transparency. It requires colleges, schools and individual professionals to provide (and make readily accessible) information that is “complete, truthful and factual” about deadlines, costs, programs and admission factors including things like demonstrated interest and financial need.

There is clearly an element of interpretation into what constitutes “complete, truthful and factual.” Is that the same thing as “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”? At the very least, it places the burden of proof on colleges that want to obscure their practices on the assumption that students, like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, “can’t handle the truth.”

Transparency is a good starting point for ethical admission and financial aid practices. Transparency implies respect for students and families and confidence or belief in the rightness of what an institution is doing. Higher education is ultimately about the search for truth, and an admissions office that doesn’t practice truthfulness and transparency is at odds with that mission.

Transparency may not automatically translate into ethical behavior, but when we are embarrassed about our practices and hesitant to be transparent about them, that’s probably a sign that we should abandon them.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. 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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