The New Ground Rules for Admissions

The Justice Department has failed colleges and students, writes John L. Mahoney.

February 24, 2020
Boston College

As colleges are releasing admission decisions to this year’s high school seniors, it’s important that students and their families understand the impact that recent litigation will have on the college admission process moving forward.

In December, the Justice Department, following a two-year investigation, sued the National Association for College Admission Counseling for allegedly violating antitrust regulations by limiting competition among colleges to enroll students. The case was immediately settled under the terms of a proposed consent decree based on NACAC’s vote in September to delete three provisions from its professional code of ethics.

The NACAC provisions pertained to early-decision programs, the recruitment of students who have already made enrollment commitments and the recruitment of transfer students.

These provisions did not impose onerous standards on colleges in terms of the recruitment and enrollment of students. Rather, they ensured that a process, which has become more byzantine and emotionally wrenching for families with each passing year, maintained basic standards of integrity and respect for students.

The first provision related to early-decision programs, which require students to make a binding commitment to enroll at a college, if admitted.

High school counselors, in general, caution middle- to lower-income families against early decision, because it limits their ability to negotiate the financial aid they need to afford college.

Until now, NACAC had prohibited colleges from offering incentives exclusive to students who apply through early-decision programs. Its rationale was that access to special academic programs, preferred campus housing, early course registration or other benefits should be available to all students regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Now, colleges will be free to use early-decision programs to conduct bidding wars for students from the wealthiest families. Once again, as this year’s Varsity Blues scandal revealed, students from wealthy families will enjoy access and opportunities in the college admission process that elude middle- to lower-income families.

The second provision established May 1 as the date by which students had to commit to the college of their choice. Most colleges communicate admission decisions no later than the end of March. This has allowed ample time for colleges to compete for students on the basis of cost, and for students to weigh their options. Once students made their decision, it was considered final unless they were offered acceptance from another college’s waiting list.

But the Justice Department believed that colleges should be able to continue recruiting students they’ve admitted even after those students have declared their intention to enroll elsewhere. Far from restricting competition, the May 1 deadline brought closure to the years-long college search process, freeing students to celebrate their final weeks of high school with proms and graduations and to focus on their next destination.

Consider now a post-May 1 world where colleges strive to dissuade students from their thoughtfully considered decisions. Imagine this pursuit continuing through summer as students attend orientation programs and register for fall classes. Imagine students arriving on campus in August only to find competing colleges in booths on the sidewalk outside offering last-minute deals to change their minds. The May 1 deadline protected students from such tactics as they prepared to enroll at the college of their choice.

In a similar vein, the Justice Department investigation prompted NACAC to eliminate a third provision that protected students’ right to privacy at the colleges they’ve chosen. NACAC’s code of ethics recognized there would be students who, dissatisfied with their experience at a particular college, will seek to transfer to another institution. When such students initiated the transfer process with a college, that institution was free to recruit them however they wished.

But the Justice Department, citing freedom of competition, has now empowered colleges to actively recruit students who are prospering at the institutions where they’ve chosen to enroll. These students, believing they’ve closed the book on the college admission process, would again see their email accounts inundated and their mailboxes overflowing with invitations and promotional brochures.

Colleges can and should compete for students on the basis of academic programs, extracurricular offerings, financial aid, sports, study abroad opportunities, recreational facilities, job placement and other variables. Given demographic and enrollment challenges facing higher education today, prospective students already benefit from intense competition among colleges.

No one disputes that costs and financial aid are crucial considerations for any family on the brink of a college decision. However, equally important is the opportunity for young people to choose the learning environment and campus setting that best fits their academic and personal aspirations.

By pushing NACAC to abandon fundamental ethical principles, the Justice Department has made unbridled competition among colleges its top priority and has reduced the college admission process to a financial transaction.

This will not serve the best interests of students. It will intensify and extend the stress they experience at this vulnerable point in their lives, and it could undercut their confidence in making their best personal choice for college.


John L. Mahoney is vice provost for enrollment management at Boston College.


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