Ethical College Admissions: Low Point

High Point University illustrates the problems with the Justice Department's approach to antitrust issues in higher education, writes Jim Jump.

October 28, 2019
 
Wikipedia
High Point University

Just four weeks ago, the National Association for College Admission Counseling voted to remove three provisions from its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices (CEPP) in response to an investigation by the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Lawyers for the DOJ somehow concluded that certain parts of the CEPP constitute restraint of trade on colleges’ recruiting efforts. NACAC elected to resolve the investigation by entering into a consent decree rather than risk litigation that might drain the organization’s financial resources and threaten its sustainability.

At least one article about the NACAC vote described the profession as being in mourning, and I suppose there’s some truth in that. For those of us who have devoted our professional lives to helping students make transformational decisions about their futures, the NACAC code of ethics has always been a document that helped us see beyond our own self-interest to protecting the public interest.

It has been said that time heals all wounds (although I prefer Groucho Marx’s formulation -- “Time wounds all heels”). At the very least, time provides clarity and perspective. We may be starting to see glimpses of both, along with answers to two larger questions raised by the situation.

The first question is what the DOJ was thinking. The idea that the Antitrust Division would devote its time and resources to investigating a nonprofit voluntary membership organization rather than corporate mergers or attempts to monopolize an industry seems misguided. That NACAC would be deemed some kind of college admissions cartel seems bizarre.

Based on recent news about the DOJ, though, the NACAC investigation is less of an outlier than it appeared a month ago. It fits nicely into Attorney General Bill Barr’s crusade to “investigate the investigators” rather than those who committed the crimes.

For the profession, the question is whether colleges will change their behavior and take off their gloves now that ethical restrictions have been lifted. What will the “brave new world” of college admission look like if concern for ethical practice disappears?

We may have an answer, and it’s not pretty. Well, that didn’t take long, did it?

Several weeks ago a respected admissions dean sent me an email with the subject line “Have you seen this?” “This” was a page from the website of High Point University in North Carolina (tagline “The Premier Life Skills University”) advertising eight benefits of applying early decision to High Point.

What had attracted attention from my dean correspondent (and a subsequent Inside Higher Ed article) was that the eight reasons included several incentives that would have been outlawed by the NACAC CEPP a month before. One of the CEPP provisions challenged by the DOJ and removed by NACAC prohibited colleges from offering special incentives for early-decision applicants not available to all students. That prohibition was grounded in the ethical principle that students should be able to choose where to go to college free of coercion or manipulation from colleges.

Among the eight benefits trumpeted by High Point for early decision are the following:

  • First priority for housing
  • First priority in scheduling courses for the fall semester
  • A personal parking place for the entire freshman year
  • Move in a day early
  • Early access to a success coach

High Point also promises early-decision applicants “complimentary access to an exclusive Life Skills and Leadership Luncheon” that will “help you jumpstart your professional network” (“Talk about getting ahead of the competition!”) and a “complimentary, autographed book” from one of High Point’s in-residence faculty (“Your friends at other schools will be incredibly jealous when they see Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s signature in your Instagram feed!”) The only things missing are sky miles and a toaster.

High Point’s early-decision incentives are in compliance with the NACAC Code of Ethics as amended a month ago. In ethics, the naturalistic fallacy points out that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. Having the technology to clone human beings doesn’t mean that’s a good idea. High Point can offer incentives for early decision, but should it?

High Point, located in what was once called the “Furniture Capital of the World” before globalization depressed American furniture manufacturing, is a fascinating success story in progress, an institution trying to transform its reputation. That effort is largely due to its charismatic president, Nido Qubein. Qubein, a multimillionaire and motivational speaker, became High Point’s president in 2005, and he has attempted to transform High Point into a shining example of the “college as resort” model.

Under Qubein’s leadership, High Point invested $700 million in refurbishing the campus and adding amenities for students ranging from a full-size replica financial trading floor in the business building to an on-campus steak house to dorms with outdoor hot tubs to valet parking for prospective families to a cart that travels around campus handing out treats to students. High Point has an administrator with the title “Director of WOW,” and its current basketball coach is alumnus Tubby Smith, who won a national championship while coaching at the University of Kentucky.

High Point’s attempt to build, or even create, its brand is ambitious and perhaps unprecedented. There are certainly skeptics. The transformation is reliant on a level of debt that is rarely seen in higher education, and a 2012 Businessweek article pointed out that Moody’s downgraded High Point bonds to junk status after the university borrowed $165 million. That same article included the factoid that High Point paid nearly $1 million annually to a public relations and consulting business run by Qubein’s daughter. The real question, of course, is whether any college or university is capable of changing its reputation significantly. High Point is a great case study in answering that question.

Drawing conclusions about High Point’s early-decision incentives requires answering several other questions.

Are the incentives necessary? Most of us felt that it would be next May before we saw colleges struggling to make their class reach out to students with enhanced scholarship offers and other incentives to enroll even if already committed elsewhere. While I find coercion of students troubling, it is perhaps understandable if an institution’s existence is in jeopardy. That doesn’t appear to be the case with High Point.

Are the incentives coercive? Perhaps. There are clearly benefits to be derived from applying early decision, but will any of them cause a student to suddenly make High Point his or her first choice? Should a college want a student whose decision is driven by having a reserved parking place?

Are High Point’s incentives more coercive than the increased likelihood of admission for early-decision applicants at many selective colleges and universities? There are numerous colleges that admit between 50 to 65 percent of their freshman classes in early decision, meaning that a student’s chances of admission drop precipitously in regular admission. A number of colleges have used early decision to drive down their admit rate and appear more selective. I hope that’s not High Point’s objective.

Are High Point’s actions likely to lead to an incentives arms race? I know what I hope, and I know what I think, and they are not the same thing. Being on the cutting edge is not necessarily something to celebrate or be proud of.

High Point has accomplished a lot of good things. This is not one of them.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. 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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