In the wake of this year’s admissions scandals, one of the bigger stories this fall has focused on the Department of Justice’s successful effort to compel the National Association for College Admissions Counseling to loosen its grip on what constitutes acceptable recruiting and admissions practices.
In particular, NACAC rescinded rules that prohibited institutions from offering incentives to early-decision applicants and that restricted institutions from recruiting students already committed or enrolled at other higher education institutions. Many publications, including Inside Higher Ed, noted the sky-is-falling hand-wringing of enrollment professionals who suggested that college recruiting will become a “wild, wild west” (imagine Chicken Little with spurs and a six-shooter) in a way that harms students and families. Then last week, in his "Ethical College Admissions" blog and best “I told you so” voice, Jim Jump held up High Point University’s early-decision incentive policy as an example of the pernicious world of coercive college admissions that he fears will likely result from the DOJ’s meddling.
It does seem odd that enrollment professionals are so quick to claim to know what is best for students in the midst of a college search. After all, these are the same folks whose job security depends upon their ability to convince students and families to buy what they are selling. With that in mind, it does seem possible that there might be a wee bit of bias clouding their judgment.
Although I don’t claim to speak for all students and parents in the midst of the college search, after spending much of the last year talking with them about their college search experience as a part of launching my company TuitionFit, I think it might be useful to consider what all this stuff -- early decision, NACAC rules changes and college admissions more generally -- too often looks like to the average family trying to send their average son or daughter to college.
Let’s start with Jump’s concerns that the early-decision incentives at High Point University create conditions under which students considering High Point would be unable to “choose where to go to college free of coercion or manipulation.” The Oxford dictionary defines coercion as “the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.” Clearly, these incentives don’t rise to the level of coercion, and only qualify as unfairly manipulative if you consider college-bound students and their families to be utter stooges.
Instead, I’ve found parents, and increasingly prospective students, approach the college search process with deep skepticism. They hear the rapturous claims that a college transforms a young mind or inspires an abiding love of learning (all claims that are rooted in the altruistic notion that a student should choose a college based solely on the opportunity to pursue a life of the mind) as vacuous marketing spin and, even worse, pure manipulation intended to distract from the fact that they will likely be asked to borrow an arm and a leg after they are admitted.
What really sounds like coercion to the average student and family is early decision itself: the notion that a college would offer you the chance to be admitted early, but only if you 1) don’t apply early decision to any other schools and, if accepted, 2) you must enroll and pay whatever price they tell you to pay. To add insult to injury, early decision is regularly described as legally binding, language that to an average family sounds like a not-so-thinly veiled threat.
Of course, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes on Google for a family to find out that the “legally binding” part of early decision is just a continuation of the coercion. No college is going to drag you off to orientation kicking and screaming if you change your mind or take you to court to pay a tuition bill from a college you didn’t attend.
Even when colleges say that they may allow a student to withdraw from their early-decision contract if the student cannot afford the price they are asked to pay, the college has already asserted itself -- through the invasive nature of their financial aid application and assessment of the family’s ability to pay -- as the arbiter of what that family can afford. It’s an audacious power play. And if all that weren’t enough, colleges say they may be obligated to inform your high school counselor of your “dishonorable” behavior, and even may share your decision with other colleges (something else the Department of Justice began investigating last year). To an average student and family, complaining about High Point’s early-decision incentives without saying “boo” about early decision itself sounds impressively detached from reality.
And early decision is just the tip of the iceberg. For many students and families, the whole process feels manipulative. First, there’s wave after wave of brochures, emails, texts and social media messages that quickly blur together and, in most cases, do little more than keep the recycling bin full. Then there’s the steady stream of scholarship offers in exchange for attending a visit day, making a campus visit, completing an application by a certain date or even just wearing a particular college’s T-shirt in a picture that you post on social media.
The totality of this onslaught just feeds the skepticism, because nowhere in any of this fire hose of marketing muck is the one data point that the average family trying to send their average student to college wants to know first: actual price. Not the sticker price, not the average price from a few years ago, not a net price calculator estimate of what your price would be if you are admitted (the reputation of net price calculators as less than dependable is now pretty well-known) and definitely not some broad assurances of substantial financial aid. People want to know the price they will be asked to pay at any college or university from the very beginning of the college-search process.
The families that I have spoken to don’t want to get caught at the end of the search process with a few acceptance letters and corresponding financial aid offers that make those institutions unaffordable. Furthermore, they know that each stage of the search process costs them something. They don’t want to spend the time, the emotional energy and the days off from work to visit a campus, attend an open house or participate in a summer program only to find out at the 11th hour that, not only can’t they afford the price their “dream” school wants them to pay, but now they’ve likely missed out on other entirely reasonable schools that would have offered them a price they could afford.
Despite all of the arguments to the contrary, people don’t understand why they shouldn’t be able to shop for college like they shop for other expensive products. First, they want to narrow their choices to the versions of that product that fit into their price range. Then they want to investigate each option in more detail to figure which one provides the best return for the amount spent. Value matters a ton. I’ve never heard any suggest that they would just pick the cheapest school without any other consideration. But one can’t determine any sense of value without knowing your price.
So when higher education institutions and associated organizations like NACAC cry foul about the Department of Justice insisting that they change their practices, and when the details of those changes seem almost entirely peripheral to the problem that families experience when trying to find a college or university, for the average student and family, it’s just one more reason to roll their eyes at higher education.