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The Hard (and Late) Sell

July 29, 2013

Students who earn good grades in high school, or who score well on standardized tests, get used to the barrage of pitches from colleges that want them to apply. But in theory, after May 1 of senior year, when the student has turned in a deposit to enroll at a specific college in the fall, the pitches should end.

Colleges should "not knowingly recruit students who are enrolled, registered, have initiated deferred admission, or have declared their intent, or submitted contractual deposits to other institutions," says the Statement of Principles of Good Practice of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. (The statement does not have legal power, but is a respected ethics code for the admissions profession.)

So more than a few admissions officers and high school counselors did a double-take when they read in The New York Times Friday that Loyola University in New Orleans this summer "made a flurry of calls to students who had been accepted but had decided to go elsewhere, and had even paid deposits to other colleges." Loyola is among a number of colleges that this year were seriously below their targets for a freshman class for the fall, and the Times cited that strategy (which would seem to directly violate the NACAC statement) as one being tried. And so counselors did what they generally do when they learn of violations of their code of conduct: they asked NACAC to investigate.

Loyola says that its officials were misquoted by the Times (more on that later) and that it strictly abides by the NACAC guidelines. But it also turns out that some other colleges have been going after students who have made deposits and commitments elsewhere, in violation of the NACAC guidelines.

Tom Weede, chair of NACAC's Admissions Practices Committee, and vice president for enrollment management at Butler University, said in an interview that the committee would investigate the complaints made Friday about Loyola and that, in the past, it has found a number of colleges to be engaged in the practice.

The approach of the NACAC committee is to work with colleges found in violation and to get them to agree to stop breaking the rules. The committee does not announce the names of those institutions. But Weede said that the contention of guidance counselors that some of their students are seeing such offers -- after making deposits elsewhere -- is correct.

Weede said that in almost all of the cases that he remembers, this type of violation does not originate with an admissions officer. Rather, it originates with the administrator to whom the admissions dean reports saying that the size of the incoming class isn't satisfactory, and that these types of tactics need to be tried. People "get orders to do this," he said.

In some cases, Weede said, an individual student might benefit from this kind of bidding and might walk away with a better aid offer. But Weede said that, for higher education as a whole, this is not a good practice. Colleges work hard to admit students who will benefit from the education offered, to find enough aid to enable the students to enroll, and to plan for their arrival at the start of the new year.

Colleges already deal with "summer melt" (when some students who have accepted opt not to enroll) and college officials get livid when talking about people who put down deposits at more than one institution. Weede said that, ultimately, colleges do a better job if they aren't constantly having their accepted applicants raided (or raiding others).

Roberta E. Kaskel, interim vice president for enrollment management at Loyola, said that the university absolutely did not make a pitch to anyone who indicated that he or she had made a deposit elsewhere. Rather, she said, the university was going out to students who never told Loyola whether or not they were enrolling. The university stopped any recruiting as soon as a potential student indicated that a deposit had been made elsewhere, she said. While the Times article prompted some college counselors to say they had seen recruiting after deposits were put down elsewhere, no specific examples involving Loyola were cited.

Asked if it wasn't known by Loyola that most of these students had accepted other offers, Kaskel said that was not the case and that there were many who hadn't committed anywhere, well after May 15. Asked for the breakdown between those who had committed somewhere and those who had not, she said she did not know.

She stressed that Loyola would not violate the NACAC guidelines. "If the student said 'I'm going to X,' we wished them good luck and stopped communication," she said.

Weede said that Loyola's answer reflects changes he has seen over time in admissions practices by applicants. Most applicants, he said, respond to admissions offers only from the college they accept, and the vast majority of those who turn down an admissions offer never bother to tell the colleges they are rejecting. Weede said that his university sends out a form letter in the summer to accepted applicants who have said nothing, just to be sure that nobody thinks they accepted an admissions offer, or intended to and forgot. Many ignore those letters too, he said, but the norm is that those students have accepted another offer.

Further, he said that it was important to remember that some of the underlying assumptions of the current schedule for admissions may apply more to elite colleges than other institutions. The idea of a common May 1 deadline to tell colleges of an applicant's decision was designed to protect applicants -- so that colleges couldn't move up the deadline and exert unfair pressure on an applicant to commit, Weede said.

Likewise, he added, colleges get "to know where they are" on May 1 in terms of their goals for the class to enroll in the fall.

But while the May 1 deadline and associated rules "have worked out well for more schools," it is also the case that many students haven't figured out their plans by May 1.

Some students are just starting the process. And plenty of colleges don't have their class figured out by May 1 but are "working through the summer to bring in freshmen."

 

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