Ethical College Admissions: Overbooking and Lessons From Irvine

Jim Jump says there are legitimate reasons to withdraw an acceptance, but he's not sure the university had them for most of those briefly told they couldn't enroll.

August 7, 2017
 

On Wednesday the University of California, Irvine, reversed course and apologized for informing 500 students in mid-July that their enrollments were being canceled. Chancellor Howard Gillman called the university’s actions “fundamentally misaligned with our values” and announced that all the incoming students affected would be admitted unless there was clear evidence that they had failed to meet academic standards (a senior-year grade point average of at least 3.0 with no D’s or F’s).

I must admit that I had mixed feelings about seeing the fiasco resolved. It was clearly the right thing to do, but the timing was selfishly problematic. The announcement from the chancellor came less than three hours after I had finished a draft column arguing for the exact same solution. While I had made some of the same points in an interview for a Chronicle of Higher Education article published Wednesday morning, the timing meant rewriting the column and losing an opportunity to claim credit for resolving the crisis. In any case, I applaud Irvine for keeping a public relations nightmare from becoming a travesty of justice.

The resolution does not mean that there are not some questions worth investigating. Primary among them is to what extent was this situation a product of “overbooking.” Irvine had 850 more students accept its offer of admission than its freshman enrollment goal of 6,250. Were the 500 revoked enrollments an attempt to manage the enrollment overflow?

The answer appears to be yes, although the messages from Irvine officials were mixed. A university spokesman told The New York Times that the problem occurred after “more students than we expected accepted to the university,” then two days later told The Washington Post that none of the withdrawn offers were related to the enrollment overflow. Irvine’s vice chancellor for student affairs acknowledged that the university “took a harder line” on the terms and conditions of enrollment and “could have managed that process with greater care, sensitivity and clarity.” According to the university, 200 of the revocations were due to grade issues and 300 due to missing transcripts.

In referring to Irvine’s problem as “overbooking,” let’s be clear that the situation was in no way analogous to the overbooking practiced by the airline industry, where selling more tickets than seats for flights is a deliberate strategy. No one at Irvine channeled United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, who back in April tried to characterize a passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight as “reaccommodating customers.”

There is no indication that Irvine did anything wrong on the front end. Its predicament is a reflection of the challenges inherent in projecting enrollment in an environment where yield rates (the percentage of accepted students choosing to enroll) are volatile from year to year and where the best admission plans are held hostage by the whims of teenagers.

Irvine received 104,000 applications for the fall of 2017, with only two colleges nationally, UCLA and UC San Diego, receiving more. The university admitted 31,000 with an enrollment goal of 6250, meaning that Irvine assumed a yield rate of 20 percent. That doesn’t factor in “summer melt” -- students who indicate intent to enroll and then change their minds. For Irvine that is normally about 250 students, so the university probably predicted a 21 percent yield. If 7,100 students enrolled, that would indicate that the actual yield was 23 percent. Each percentage point difference means close to 300 additional students.

It is hard not to conclude that the “harder line” taken by Irvine was a strategy to reduce the overenrollment, given that the Los Angeles Times has reported that UCLA revoked seven offers of admission and UC San Diego nine this summer. Alternative explanations for canceling 500 enrollments raise broader and potentially more troubling issues for the university.

Irvine asked for final transcripts by July 1, a deadline that seems early, because admission decisions at all the University of California campuses are made based not on a student’s transcript but on self-reported grades. That’s a practice being adopted by other large public universities around the country.

Self-reported grades speed up the evaluation process in the spring because there is no waiting for school materials but require verification during the summer that the self-reported grades match the grades on the transcript. Were the transcript issues for 300 students because the transcript hadn’t arrived or had been misplaced, or because students self-reported grades that were wrong? If a student misrepresented their grades, then UC Irvine should revoke enrollment. If too many students were to misrepresent, that’s a much bigger issue.

Similarly, if 200 students finished the year with D’s or F’s, then the university is within its rights to cancel enrollment, but that also raises questions -- or eyebrows. Irvine has a 30 percent admit rate and a middle 50 percent GPA range of 4.0 to 4.5, so having that many students falling victim to senior slump would call the admission evaluation process into question.

What is not ethical is canceling student enrollments in July due to having enrolled too many students. Overenrolling may not produce as much anxiety on campus as underenrolling, but it poses challenges with regard to having enough housing and having enough course sections and instructors. It’s not unheard-of for a university with an overenrollment issue to turn double-accommodation dorm rooms into triples or even rent out hotel rooms or apartment buildings to handle the overflow.

Informing 500 students in mid-July that they’re no longer enrolled is both unheard-of and unjustifiable. It’s not their fault that the university is in a bind. It’s neither fair nor reasonable to revoke a student’s enrollment in July without cause, and what makes it worse is that the likelihood of finding another option at that late date is remote. Irvine argued that the students involved hadn’t lived up to the contractual obligations in the offer of admission, but a contract imposes obligations on both parties.

Thankfully Irvine is doing the right thing. As it conducts its internal investigation, I hope someone will ask the question “Who thought that was a good idea?” For the rest of us, it’s a lesson that accidental overbooking on a college campus is as fraught with peril as intentional overbooking on an airline flight.

Bio

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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