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You can’t say I wasn’t warned about what a career in college counseling entails. I still remember the first evaluation I received as a rookie admission counselor more than 40 years ago. One of the categories in the evaluation template used for all administrators and staff members at the college was something along the lines of “Is available to perform duties as needed.” My admissions director boss refused to give any of us on the staff the top rating in that category, arguing that we were all expected to be on duty 24-7.

I am amused whenever someone at my school or within the profession talks about work-life balance. For those of us on the college counseling front lines, that balance is aspirational at best, or at least I have found it so. Independent schools exist on an economic model based on hiring people who don’t have much of a life outside school, and I have wondered what will happen when the next generation of admission officers and college counselors is healthier and not as committed/neurotic as most of us have been.

Being “on duty” extends to holidays. At 8:04 a.m. Christmas morning, I found myself replying to an email message posted on the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools e-list at 11:26 p.m. the night before. A colleague was asking for advice regarding a ethical dilemma facing one of his students. The timing of his post was related to the dilemma being time sensitive, whereas my quick reply was related to me being pathetic.

One of the counselor’s students had just been admitted early decision, with the college meeting the student’s demonstrated financial need. Just in the previous couple of days, though, the student had been contacted by a Division III coach from a college other than the one the student had committed to attending about playing his sport at the college level. Up until that point, the student had never considered that as a possibility, and he was now excited and interested in pursuing the opportunity.

The boy’s father, having read about the changes to the National Association for College Admission Counseling Code of Ethics and Professional Practices as a result of the investigation by the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, was interpreting the removal of the CEPP clause prohibiting poaching of students who have committed to another institution as extending to early decision as well and argued that the student should be able to apply to the second college. The counselor wasn’t clear about how the ethical changes impacted this case and was therefore asking for advice. What made the issue pressing and necessitated the Christmas Eve inquiry was that the application deadline for the second college was Jan. 1.

Those are the facts of the case. Anyone who has read this column for any length of time can probably anticipate that we are interested not only in what is the proper course of action for the family and the counselor in this situation, but also the larger issues that underlie it.

There’s a lot to unpack (perhaps the first issue is whether “unpack” is a buzzword along the lines of “optics” or “buzzword”). Let’s start with whether the changes to the CEPP apply to early-decision commitments.

The simple answer is no. The consent decree that NACAC reached with the DOJ required that NACAC remove three provisions contained in the statement of ethical principles, all of which the DOJ interpreted as restricting competition.

One of the three had to do with early decision. That provision had prevented colleges from offering incentives to early-decision applicants not available to other applicants, but didn’t address early decision itself. We have sadly already seen a few institutions gleefully slide down the incentive slippery slope in response.

The second deleted provision, the one the father seemed to be referring to, had prohibited colleges from continuing to recruit students once they committed to another college, specifically after the May 1 National Candidates Reply Date. The final challenged provision regarded recruitment of students enrolled at another college as transfers.

The counselor wanted to properly advise the student and parent and asked for whether the changes to the NACAC Code of Ethics mean that early decision is dead. That is a more complex question.

Early decision as an admissions “convention” remains in the CEPP and to this point hasn’t been challenged, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be in the future. In the wake of the consent decree with the DOJ, NACAC is currently in limbo. The vote in October removing the three challenged provisions included a moratorium on enforcement of any provision in the code of ethics. There is also an internal debate taking place within the membership and leadership of NACAC about whether the organization is capable of enforcing any provision or whether the future of the code of ethics is as a document of best practices.

So early decision as a practice is not directly impacted by the NACAC/DOJ consent decree. But does that matter in this case? That’s also a more complex issue. The NACAC Code of Ethics applies to professionals, not to students and families. So what obligations does the counselor have in this situation?

Early decision has always been defined as a binding commitment, and as a counselor I have always advised students not to consider early decision unless they are certain they want to attend the college or university in question. Today that’s not as simple a proposition as it once was. The number of institutions that admit huge percentages of their class through early decision mean a student’s chances of being admitted in regular decision are substantially reduced. For students aspiring to attend a highly selective university, the consequence of applying early to one place may be to take other places off the table.

It is also the case that the early decision commitment is not equal for student and college. The student commits to enroll if admitted, whereas the college commits only to provide an earlier decision. The difference is not unlike the business fable about the roles of chicken and pig in a breakfast of ham and eggs. The college, like the chicken, is involved, whereas the student, like the pig, is committed.

I have raised the question before about when an early-decision commitment kicks in. I have always counseled students that it occurs at the moment of application, but if that is the case, why do colleges require an enrollment deposit from early-decision admits? Wouldn’t that suggest that the commitment occurs upon deposit rather than application?

Early decision has never been legally binding, and a session at the College Board Forum last fall talked about “ED melt,” reporting that the yield for early decision nationally is 88 percent, meaning that 12 percent of those admitted early don’t follow through. Colleges certainly aren’t in a position to collude to punish a student who breaks an ED commitment without risking an antitrust investigation.

So is it legitimate for the student to withdraw from his early-decision commitment in this case? The accepted case for reneging is the institution not meeting financial need, which is not the case here.

I don’t think an ED commitment should be made lightly, but in this instance the student is presented with an opportunity he didn’t know was a possibility when he applied early decision. The ethical dilemma here is a conflict between the student living up to his commitment or following his heart. The even more important principles are truthfulness and courtesy, so I would require the student to contact the college and ask it to release him from the early decision commitment.

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