Ethical College Admissions: De-Fense!, or Defense Mechanisms

Jim Jump looks at the steps some colleges are considering -- without NACAC rules.

December 9, 2019

Nearly 40 years ago, a college basketball coach told me that his Christmas card list each December included, or perhaps consisted of, every player still in college that he had recruited but who had elected to go elsewhere to play. That gesture was only partly about extending best wishes and season’s greetings. It was also self-serving, making sure that any of those players unhappy with their college choice and thinking about transferring might be inclined to keep in mind his college and team.

He was ahead of his time in a several respects. First of all, he was an early practitioner of the “holiday tradition” most celebrated in advertisements this time of year, that of buying a present for the person you love most -- yourself. Rather than invest in a Lexus or a Peloton, he was making a down payment on a gift that might help him do his job better.

Second, he anticipated the growth market in transferring among college athletes. With the advent of the NCAA transfer portal, transferring is the NCAA equivalent of free agency, especially the graduate transfer rule that allows athletes to change colleges without sitting out a year. Today the practice of coaches sending Christmas cards to potential transfers seems quaint. Given the need to constantly recruit and re-recruit players once they enroll, they might be better off sending cards to show love to their own players.

The coach may also have foreshadowed the new college admissions frontier in the wake of the vote by the National Association for College Admission Counseling to amend its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices by removing several provisions. That vote was informed by the Department of Justice investigation claiming that some of the CEPP provisions constituted restraint of trade for colleges in their recruitment and enrollment of students. The specific provisions removed included a prohibition on offering incentives to entice students to apply early decision and prohibitions on “poaching” students committed to other colleges, either freshmen after the May 1 National Candidates Reply Date or as transfers once they have enrolled elsewhere.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with admission deans and directors from a number of small private colleges to discuss how the NACAC vote is impacting their work. All of the colleges are the kind of places that tend to get ignored by stories about college admission that focus only on “elite” colleges that admit only a small percentage of those applying. They are good schools that are tuition-driven, and as a result they have to work hard every year to make the freshman class and the budget. The deans and directors are on the front lines of the admission process, protecting their institutions’ sustainability while trying to figure out the whims of 17- and 18-year-olds.

Each of the admission professionals in the room expressed their individual desire to hold true to the spirit of the ethical principles embodied in the CEPP and its predecessor documents, including the prohibition on poaching students from other colleges that the DOJ for some reason finds problematic. But they also recognize that they are playing defense.

The first line of that defense is internal, conducted on their own campuses. At least two of the institutions present reported that in the past couple of months they have had trustees propose that their institution adopt marketing strategies or practices that would historically been considered unethical. As I learned in my days as admissions director at a struggling independent school, everyone has marketing suggestions, some helpful and most not, and for colleges the NACAC ethical standards have been insurance protecting institutions from the worst instincts of board members and sometimes presidents.

The second line of defense is anticipating the actions that may be taken in response to the NACAC changes by institutions that are more inclined to be offensive in their admission practices. The deans mentioned several “checkpoints” they would be paying attention to in order to see whether the recruiting winds are changing direction.

The first checkpoint has already passed. It has to do with whether colleges will offer more incentives for early-decision applicants. We have seen a couple of high-profile examples this fall, but will early decision become the higher education equivalent of television infomercials, where “and if you order now” is part of the sales pitch?

Is there anything inherently wrong with incentives for early-decision applicants? As with so many questions related to college admission, the answer is probably “it depends.” Do early-decision incentives seal the deal for students who were already leaning to an institution as their first choice, or do incentives lead students to choose an institution that may not be the right fit? Are some incentives more reasonable than others? The deans and directors at the meeting felt that guaranteed acceptance into a major or program with limited spaces was a legit benefit for ED applicants. I can see preference for freshman housing as fine if the institution uses a “first come, first served” approach for freshman housing for all applicants.

But what about guaranteed parking? That is clearly an issue on many campuses, and campuses with limited parking have historically restricted freshmen from having cars. Several of those present at the meeting voiced their skepticism that some colleges may be hawking parking as an incentive even though parking on campus is not actually an issue. That would make parking similar to the secret ingredients (like Retsyn in the breath mint Certs) used to distinguish products like toothpaste and shampoo that are largely indistinguishable.

There are two bigger issues with regard to ED incentives. One is that the greatest incentive of all, one not prohibited by the NACAC CEPP, is the higher admit rate for early-decision applicants. It is also the case that early-decision incentives disadvantage even further students who don’t have access to savvy college counseling or who need to compare financial aid packages.

The second checkpoint may be occurring under the radar right now. Colleges are worried that competitors may be reaching out, like the basketball coach above, to their students to put visions of transferring to greener pastures (the educational version of Clement Clarke Moore’s dancing sugarplums) in their heads. One college has considered blocking emails from senders with outside .edu addresses as a defense mechanism.

The third, most worrisome, checkpoint will occur in the days after May 1 next spring. How will colleges respond to falling short of their enrollment goals, and to what lengths will they go? Will poaching of enrolled students resemble the poaching of exotic animals in Africa? Will fears of a new “Wild West” in admission come true?

May 1 has been a useful convention for students and colleges, providing an aspirational end to the admission process. Of course, for many institutions the admissions process extends beyond May 1, and they have a right and an ethical obligation to remain vital and sustainable. The key is how they do that. It is one thing to continue to recruit students who have not told you their plans, and another thing to continue to recruit students who have told you they are going elsewhere.

College admission has always been a balancing act between institutional interest and the public interest. That balance is threatened by how colleges respond to the changing enrollment landscape and the changing ethical rules. The greatest threat to our profession is the loss of public trust in the college admissions process and the college admission profession. All of us need to play defense on that front.

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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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