Ethical College Admissions: After the Applications Are In

Ethical choices don't go away at this stage in the process, especially if an applicant does something that may hurt his or her chances, writes Jim Jump.

December 3, 2018

At the very end of the 1972 movie The Candidate, newly elected U.S. Senator Bill McKay (played by Robert Redford) turns to his campaign manager and asks, “What do we do now?”

What indeed? The question, which is almost forlorn in contrast with the victory celebration taking place around the candidate, may testify to the truth of Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” It also points to the truth that too many elected officials are much better at and more interested in running for office than actually governing.

“What do we do now?” is a common question at this time of year for a different kind of candidate -- those applying to college. So much time and energy is expended on the application process that submitting the final application can bring a mixture of excitement, relief, trepidation and ennui. I often tell students and parents that the period postapplication is the hardest part of the college process. There is nothing to do but sit and wait.

Students often wonder whether they should update their file with additional information. There may be minimal benefit from a demonstrated interest standpoint, but like activities and recommendation letters, quality is more important than quantity. An Academy Award nomination is news worth sharing with colleges. The flute solo in the Christmas pageant, probably not.

Midyear grades are an important piece of information normally sent by schools, although I am seeing more cases where students are asked to self-report grades. That may be a response to a situation I saw a number of years ago at a large public university. The records room was a disaster because some large public school systems sent midyear grade reports for every single student in the county regardless of whether they had applied or not.

I am fine with the move to self-reporting even if it complicates my ability to know where my students have applied. I’m more conflicted with the trend where colleges require schools to send first-quarter grades for early-decision and early-action applicants. On the one hand, they certainly have a right to the information. On the other, at many schools it turns what are designed to be interim “snapshot” grades into something more official.

But what if the new information after the application has already been submitted is negative? That leads into this week’s case study.

Last week a reader contacted me with an ethical dilemma. A senior at the counselor’s school has recently been arrested on campus. The debate at the school is whether there is an ethical obligation for the student to report the arrest to the colleges and universities where the student has already applied. The school district has a policy that prevents disciplinary reporting by staff.

My reader had reviewed the National Association for College Admission Counseling Code of Ethics and Professional Practices and didn’t find any guidance specific to this situation. There is a reason for that. During the drafting of the CEPP, there was considerable discussion that its predecessor, the Statement of Principles of Good Practice, had imposed lots of ethical obligations on the college side but relatively few on the high school side of the profession. The new document tried to rectify that, and reporting of disciplinary incidents was in the document until very late in the drafting process as an outgrowth of the guiding principle of truth and transparency. Ultimately language specifying the obligation to report was removed because NACAC didn’t want to place members in the position of being held accountable ethically in opposition to district policies.

Even if the CEPP contained a reference to disciplinary reporting, it wouldn’t necessarily help here, because the Code of Ethics refers to expectations for professionals, not students and parents. So what are the ethical considerations on this case? Does the student have an ethical obligation to report the arrest to colleges?

The first question to answer is whether the student was asked about disciplinary offenses by any of the colleges on the application. There has certainly been a movement in recent years that colleges shouldn’t ask applicants about their disciplinary history, and I can argue both sides of that issue. If the college doesn’t ask about arrests or disciplinary record on the application, then the student has no obligation to volunteer the information.

That changes if the question was asked on the original application. In that case the arrest constitutes a significant change in the student’s record, and should be reported. The ethical principle of truth and transparency applies. It is understood that the information conveyed in the application is truthful, and an acceptance is conditional on the truth of what is portrayed on the application. If the student had been arrested before application and lied about it, that would be cause for an acceptance to be revoked.

But what about postapplication? The ethical obligation to be truthful doesn’t disappear once the “submit” button is hit. On the Common Application, at least, a student can’t submit until promising that the information in the application is true, but also promising to report any change in his or her record. If a student were to apply with a schedule that includes four AP classes and then drops three as soon as the application is submitted, the information reported on the application is no longer accurate and valid, and the student would be admitted on false pretenses. The same is true for a criminal or disciplinary offense after the time of application.

The philosopher W. D. Ross said that ethical obligations arise from relationships. In this case the counselor has a relationship with the student, a relationship with the colleagues in the office, a relationship to the employer and a relationship with the profession, and needs to sort through the various ethical obligations engendered by each relationship.

But there is also a relationship with the colleges involved. Applying to college is a relationship, not a transaction. It’s a relationship based on trust, and that trust is fragile and not to be taken lightly.

There is a risk in not reporting, both for the student and also for the school. There is no guarantee that the college won’t find out from a different source, and that will make things worse for the applicant and the school. The relationship between the school and college is endangered if it comes to light that the school has hidden information about a student’s record, whether academic or disciplinary. A college might choose not to admit future applicants if it believes that the school can’t be trusted to honestly communicate information about its students who are applying.

School district policy may prevent staff members from reporting, but honesty is the best policy.

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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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