Ethical College Admissions: The Walking Dead(lines)

What does it mean when application deadlines keep getting moved back, asks Jim Jump.

February 4, 2019
 

America’s fascination with and fear of zombies has never been greater than now. President Trump’s border wall would be built tomorrow if it were designed to keep out zombies rather than illegal immigrants.

The popularity of The Walking Dead television series has spread to advertising. An ad for H&R Block features actor Jon Hamm talking to a zombie (or an actress playing one) about tax refunds, and two zombies fall in love and take a selfie with accompaniment from the Hot Chocolate song “You Sexy Thing” in a commercial for the LG V40 ThinQTV and the Google Assistant app.

Higher education is not immune to most cultural fads, and this one is no exception. I recently received notification of a college summer program for high school students where one of the offerings is a course on zombies, and there is a $2,000 Zombie Apocalypse scholarship for the student with the best answer to where he or she would hide and what five things they would bring to stay alive in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

DePaul (Zombies: Modern Myths, Race, and Capitalism) and Rollins (Zombies, Serial Killers, and Madmen) are among the colleges and universities with zombie-themed course titles, and a Students vs. Zombies game is a campus tradition at Champlain College. There is even a neuroscience textbook devoted to the zombie brain with the title Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?

But what about college admission? Going through the admissions process can certainly make one look and feel like a zombie, but I have yet to see a zombie-themed essay question, and Edward Blum has yet to allege affirmative action either for or against zombies.

College admission may not have walking dead, but it does have walking deadlines. An article last week in The Wall Street Journal highlighted the number of colleges and universities that have recently extended their application deadlines. That list includes the University of Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis, Oberlin College, George Washington University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The practice of extending deadlines raises some interesting questions. Is a deadline a cutoff or a suggestion? Is extending a deadline a sign of strength or a sign of desperation? Are college application deadlines too early? Are there ethical principles that should guide deadline extensions? And does the proliferation of deadline extensions suggest that the college admissions process is broken in some way?

For the vast majority of colleges that have to work hard to make the freshman class and the budget, having a deadline is a dual-edged sword. On the plus side, it provides guidance to prospective students, especially those prone to waiting until the last minute, as to when the college would like applications filed. But once the deadline date is passed, a deadline may become an impediment to receiving applications from students who are interested but assume that there is no point in applying.

There are institutions that seem to extend their deadlines annually because they are worried about making the class. I don’t have a problem with that but wonder if that is a sign they should designate the deadline as a priority deadline or move the date later.

One of the changes over the course of my career that concerns me is the acceleration of the application process. When my son was born 33 years ago, a major concern was whether he would wait until after Feb. 1 for college applications, which at that time was still a substantial and major deadline. Now I expect my students to have finished applying by that date.

I’m sure the earlier deadlines benefit colleges, giving them more time to read the increased number of applications they feel compelled to solicit, but I am far from convinced the acceleration of the process benefits students. The senior year of high school should be a year of major growth and development intellectually and personally as a student prepares for leaving home and the college experience. We’ve lost that due to the acceleration of the application process, and I worry that students are placed in a position where they have to make decisions before they are developmentally ready.

Recently there were several elist posts questioning the need for Jan. 1 deadlines. The argument was the pressure to apply ruins the holiday season for students and counselors. It’s worth considering. I’m grateful to the handful of colleges and universities that make their regular deadline Jan. 8 or Jan. 10 rather than New Year’s Day.

Not all deadline extensions are equal. Extending the deadline because you are worried about making the class is defensible, but no college in my experience admits that is the justification. They always extend out of concern for students. If “it’s not you, it’s me” is the lamest of excuses to break up, “it’s not me, it’s you” is similarly lame to excuse extending an application deadline.

Extending application deadlines for students impacted by natural disasters like the California wildfires or hurricanes in the Caribbean should be a no-brainer, but there is something ingenuous about using a natural disaster as the justification for extending a deadline for all students. In most cases the eruption of an Icelandic volcano is not preventing students in Arkansas from submitting applications on time.

The most curious, and maybe even troubling, extensions are from institutions that are already hyperselective. Several of the places named in the Wall Street Journal article, places like Chicago and Wash U, are not in danger the way places like Hampshire and Green Mountain are. Chicago admitted fewer than 10 percent of applicants last year, so why solicit additional applications? GW received 600 diversity and first-generation applications following its extension from Jan. 5 to Jan. 15. It acknowledges that its applicant pool is “robust,” but extended its deadline to ensure that its pool is “complete.”

So when is robust not enough? Extending an application deadline when you already have more applications than needed is a college admissions form of gluttony.

That raises the larger question about whether the admissions process is broken. Part of the reason for extending application deadlines is uncertainty about what an application means in a time of declining yield, and part of the reason is that rising application numbers and being able to deny more students has become a measure of success for admissions offices.

I don’t think the National Association for College Admission Counseling needs to regulate deadline extensions, but I hope we will think carefully about when and why it’s appropriate to extend an application deadline. If we see students as the lifeblood of our institutions rather than customers with whom we are in relationship, and if we are never satisfied by the number of applications we receive, our walking deadlines may suggest that we are becoming the walking dead.

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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