Ethical College Admissions: Honesty vs. Do-Overs

Jim Jump considers the questions raised when high school students and their parents don't want a college to know about a disciplinary infraction.

February 19, 2018

It became clear early in adulthood that I was destined for a nonprofit career. In college I majored in philosophy, and my first job working in admissions paid a salary in the high four figures.

What sealed the deal was my lack of business acumen. In the late 1970s, acre lots at Duck, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, were for sale for $10,000. Duck was largely undeveloped, hardly the tourist destination it is today, but a close friend and I joked about buying a lot because we liked the name.

I had the money. Despite my meager admissions salary, I had managed to save enough to purchase a lot, but I needed to use the money to pay for graduate school. So to graduate school I went, and in the words of Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference.” I have never looked back or rued my failure to invest (although you may wonder why I mention it here if that is in fact the case). In life there are no do-overs.

Except when there are. Another student in my graduate program who was receiving full funding while I was paying for my degree revealed one night over beers that he had washed out of another graduate program but had hidden that fact when he applied. He was using our program as do-over.

Should a high school student have a disciplinary do-over? That question came up last week in a post on the National Association for College Admission Counseling Exchange. A junior at a boarding school had asked her counselor if she needed to report the suspension she received in at her previous school before she enrolled as a ninth grader at the boarding school. There were differing opinions among personnel at the school. The counselor’s interpretation is that the girl is obligated to report, while others argue that the decision to change schools should provide a clean slate, a do-over.

Should the girl report? That question raises much broader questions. How much personal information, as opposed to academic information, should be part of an admissions decision? Is school discipline an internal matter, or do colleges and universities, particularly those that are residential communities, have a legitimate need to know? To what extent is disciplinary history relevant?

That’s an issue where the pendulum swings back and forth between concern for privacy and concern for security. Following the passage of the Clery Act requiring colleges and universities to publish campus crime information and after incidents such as the Virginia Tech shootings, there was public pressure on colleges to collect as much information as possible to identify possible threats to the campus community. More recently, the Obama administration pressured colleges not to ask about criminal backgrounds as part of the admissions process on grounds that it discriminated against those with youthful indiscretions in their backgrounds. So we shouldn’t ask about armed robbery convictions but suspensions for being late to class are fair game?

That issue becomes a source of conflict in the relationship between schools and colleges. Both sides agree that it should be a matter of trust, but they disagree about what that means.

Colleges want full disclosure and to be trusted that they will use information properly, while high schools want trust that they will report disciplinary information when appropriate. Many independent schools and school districts have policies that prevent reporting disciplinary history, and colleges wonder why the NACAC Code of Ethics requires truth and transparency from them but allows schools to hide behind the veil of “school policy.”

It’s also a source of conflict between school and parents in discipline cases. “Give any punishment you want, just don’t report it to colleges” is a common parent refrain.

Last year members of a school sports team drank in their hotel rooms during a team spring break trip. All admitted guilt and were punished. The parents of the boy with least culpability came in to argue that the offense should removed from his record, citing opinions from both a former president and a current trustee at his first-choice college that it did not need to be reported. We responded that there was no disciplinary transcript sent to colleges but that the boy and I would both be asked to answer the discipline question on the Common Application, and that answering no would be a lie. Disclosing did not prevent him from being admitted early decision.

As a counselor and administrator, I have always believed in full disclosure. We are a school with a strong honor code, and failure to answer a discipline question truthfully on a college application would constitute an honor offense. We also require seniors who are convicted of either an honor or disciplinary incident after they’ve applied to college to notify the admissions office, after which we reach out to express our continued support.

When parents in the midst of a disciplinary incident question the requirement to report, I tell them that we have a relationship not only with the student and family but also with colleges, a relationship that carries with it the obligation to be truthful and honest. The view that ethical duties arise from relationships is a product of the work of the philosopher W. D. Ross. I also tell them that there are risks in not reporting, that in today’s social media world it would not be unheard-of for an applicant from another school in our community to learn about the incident and report it.

I must admit, however, that I am less comfortable with full disclosure than was once the case, worrying that we are increasingly an exception. We hold students accountable for their actions, both honor and discipline related, in a way that few schools do, and we may suspend a student for behavior that other places would be ignored. I serve as an adviser to our Honor Council, and most offenses are stupid, not deceitful. Will college admission officers understand the nuances of discipline from school to school, and will my students be harmed due to our honesty? Up to now that hasn’t been the case.

I do not believe that students are obligated to report if the question is not asked. The Coalition Application has removed discipline history questions this year, leaving them for individual Coalition members to ask. I know of a public university that asks only about “postsecondary” suspensions.

The Common Application used to ask about suspensions or expulsions but several years ago changed the question to “Have you ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation at any educational institution you have attended from the 9th grade (or the international equivalent) forward, whether related to academic misconduct or behavioral misconduct, that resulted in a disciplinary action? These actions could include, but are not limited to: probation, suspension, removal, dismissal, or expulsion from the institution.” The length of that question suggests that schools were developing alternative punishments or an educational equivalent of the Alford Plea. What I don’t like about the question is that it requires the same answer for a minor ninth-grade misstep and a major cheating incident as a senior.

Circling back to the original case, there is no way that the student can answer the Common App question “no” and be telling the truth. Changing schools does not erase or excuse the record at the previous school. A change in venue is not the same as a do-over.

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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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