NACAC's New Approach to Ethics

Jim Jump offers an inside look at the way the association changed its rules.

September 25, 2017

The college admissions profession has a new sheriff -- or, at least, a new code of ethics.

Last week in Boston, the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s legislative assembly unanimously passed a successor document to its Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP). The new document, titled “SPGP: NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices,” represents the first overhaul of the profession’s ethical principles since 2005.

The name change reflects the fact that the new set of standards is revolutionary rather than evolutionary, not in substance but in structure (the SPGP “brand” was retained to connect the new code to its predecessor). The CEPP (let me be the first to use that acronym) was developed over the past 19 months by a 29-member steering committee chaired by Todd Rinehart from the University of Denver, a past chair of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee.

The committee approach represents NACAC at its best, having worked well in the past in studying issues such as standardized testing and international recruitment.

In my opinion, the development of the new document was a model for good governance, in that the committee vetted the document before a number of stakeholders and received feedback from more than 1,400 NACAC members. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the committee and had a small role in crafting the new document.)

So how does the new CEPP differ from the old SPGP?

The most obvious difference is that all the provisions of the new document are mandatory practices, where the old SPGP included both mandatory practices subject to enforcement and best practices that were suggested but not enforced. One of the first issues resolved by the committee was whether NACAC should continue to enforce its ethical standards or, like many other professional associations, have a code of ethics that is purely aspirational.

NACAC previously had a separate document that dealt with enforcement and monitoring procedures, and those are now included in the body of the CEPP.

While only NACAC members will be subject to penalties for noncompliance, one of things I like about the CEPP is that it is intended to serve as the “industry standard” for ethical and professional practice among all of us who work in college admission and college counseling.

The new code includes a preamble that places the practice of college admission and counseling in a larger context of serving society by helping young people transform their lives through access to higher education. The preamble also identifies the ethical values that undergird the profession, establishing the CEPP as its “conscience.”

The heart of the new document lies in two sections. Section 1 is “The Ethical Core of College Admission.” The old Statement of Principles of Good Practice contained a lot of rules, many of them added to respond to some new questionable admission practice, but very few principles. The CEPP is organized around ethical principles such as truthfulness, transparency, confidentiality, professional conduct (including engaging in respectful discourse and avoiding conflicts of interest), and protecting the best interest of students. Each principle includes guiding principles, the rationale for those principles and interpretations guiding implementation.

The first two principles listed above, truthfulness and transparency, seem to me to be the core of the document. Choosing where to go to college should be a thoughtful decision made based on accurate, honest information. Admissions professionals should value truth in advertising and model truthfulness, because the quest for truth is at the heart of higher education.

Transparency as a principle runs through the document, ranging from practices such as demonstrated interest to the use of international agents. Transparency might even be said to serve as a test of how ethical an admissions practice might be. If we’re reluctant to be transparent about a particular practice, that might be a sign we should rethink the practice.

Section 2, “The Responsible Practice of College Admission,” attempts to provide structure and standardization to the admission process with regard to application plans including early decision, early action and restrictive early action as well as the admission calendar. Having common language and standard definitions protects students from coercion and manipulation and protects institutions from unfair competition.

The CEPP reinforces the May 1 National Candidates Reply Date as an unofficial end to the college admission cycle, although it is clear that a number of institutions are trying to make their class well after that deadline. Colleges may not coerce a commitment to enroll prior to May 1 and may not knowingly recruit students who are already enrolled or committed to enroll at another institution, a practice known as poaching that seems to have increased dramatically in the past few years.

The new document gives special attention to the use of housing to manipulate enrollment deposits before May 1, a subject I have written about previously. There are public universities with limited on-campus housing where a student is required to make an enrollment deposit prior to being able to apply for housing. Availability of housing may run out before May 1, so students are put in the dilemma of depositing before May 1 or not being able to get housing.

The ethical problem is that some universities were encouraging and perhaps coercing students to deposit well before May 1, but then did not refund deposits for those students who were not accepted or did not ultimately enroll and use the university housing. The CEPP requires universities to refund enrollment and housing deposits to students in that situation who cancel enrollment by May 1.

The new standards address issues that the old SPGP ignored or mentioned in passing, including wait lists, deferred admission and transfer admission. It also places clearer ethical obligations on college and universities that contract with commissioned agents for international recruitment. Finally, the CEPP includes an extensive glossary containing definitions of terms used in the document.

That is one of many contributions made by Lou Hirsh, retired director of admission at the University of Delaware and the outgoing NACAC Admission Practices Committee chair. Lou served as primary author of the document, which is why it is so well written, and he was a deserving recipient of this year’s Margaret Addis Award, the top award presented by NACAC.

No attempt to codify ethical behavior is perfect, and it will take time to see what sections of the new document need tweaking, but NACAC’s new Code of Ethics and Professional Practices is a huge step in preserving an admissions landscape that serves the public interest and reflects well on the college admission profession.


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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