Cutthroat Admission: College Accused of Stealing Students

Mercy College charges that Long Island University hired one of its deans and he then used confidential information he emailed to himself while still employed to poach students who had accepted admissions offers.

August 27, 2018
 
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Admissions can be a dog-eat-dog world. Prospective students, after all, can enroll at only one institution.

But a lawsuit filed this month in New York State court by Mercy College suggests a new level of competitiveness for students. If the allegations (at this time only allegations) are true, the suit may also raise ethics questions that go well beyond those usually considered in admissions circles.

The lawsuit alleges that a former dean of the business school at Mercy, subsequently hired by Long Island University, used his access to confidential information about Mercy's admitted applicants to lure some of them to LIU. The suit -- highly unusual in that it involves one college suing another -- seeks damages from LIU and an order that it stop using any information obtained by the former Mercy dean. The suit says damages should be at least $700,000 but that the extent of harm hasn't yet been determined.

A spokesman for LIU said via email that "while this case lacks merit, we will address the facts through the courts, not in the media."

The lawsuit, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, cites an email trail of evidence to bolster its claims. The suit also illustrates how Mercy (and comparable colleges) develop strategies to recruit top students.

According to Mercy, the college has two primary strategies for recruiting top students to its undergraduate business program. The college, based on high school students' SAT scores and high school grades, invites some students to participate in a summer program, successful completion of which typically leads to an admission offer, frequently accompanied by scholarships. Other students are invited to participate in an honors program at the college.

Mercy maintains spreadsheets with information about the targets for both programs, with data on the students, financial offers made to them, the status of admissions discussions and so forth. The strategies described in the suit aren't unique to Mercy, but the precise test scores and other academic qualifications used by Mercy would be. And getting these strategies right is key to institutions like Mercy, which operate in a highly competitive environment -- New York State has many public and private colleges.

Edward Weis was until May 31 the dean of Mercy's business school, and Mercy says he had access to all of the information in the spreadsheets, as well as communications between the college and prospective students.

In June, Weis started as vice president of academic affairs at LIU.

Mercy says that it found (with exact dates and times) that Weis, while still employed at Mercy, emailed to his noncollege email address spreadsheets on students, along with email exchanges of Mercy officials with various prospective students. including students' grades and private email addresses. In addition, email records show, Mercy says, that Weis forwarded information about which students Mercy planned to invite to its summer program the next year.

Then in June, the suit says, another former Mercy official, who followed Weis to LIU two weeks after Weis left, asked two students who had committed to enroll at Mercy to instead enroll at LIU.

Mercy's suit says that as of May 1, it had 42 new students who had accepted offers to enroll in the business honors program. By July 20, nine of them had notified Mercy that they would enroll instead at LIU. Confidential information about all nine of them was in the material Mercy says it tracked Weis sending from college accounts to his private accounts before he left the college.

The loss of a single student, considering tuition, fees, room and board, costs Mercy $32,252, the suit says. The loss of these students was more damaging, the suit says, because they had high SAT scores and stellar academic records, and many had already participated in Mercy's summer program.

Data from the U.S. Education Department's College Navigator database shows why admission is so competitive among nonelite colleges such as Mercy and LIU.

At Mercy, 79 percent of those who applied for admission in fall 2017 were admitted, and 17 percent of those who were admitted enrolled.

At LIU's main campus, 83 percent of applicants were admitted and 12 percent of those who were admitted enrolled.

The suit charges that Weis and LIU obtained confidential information to which they were not entitled and then used that information to engage in "unfair competition" with Mercy. The suit says that they acted with "Intentional, malicious and/or wanton disregard" for the rights of Mercy.

Even leaving aside the allegations of inappropriate use of confidential information, the conduct alleged in the lawsuit would violate the Code of Ethics and Professional Practices of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

That code says in part, "Colleges will not knowingly recruit or offer enrollment incentives to students who are already enrolled, registered, have declared their intent, or submitted contractual deposits to other institutions. May 1 is the point at which commitments to enroll become final, and colleges must respect that."

Other portions of the code, while not speaking to what Mercy alleges, stress that colleges must take seriously the idea that information they receive from applicants and admitted applicants must be protected.

"The college admission and counseling community depends on trust. An important component in building that trust is a respect for confidentiality," the code states.

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