Ethical College Admissions: Yogi Berra, Wile E. Coyote and Albion

The future of college admissions is worrisome on many fronts, writes Jim Jump.

March 2, 2020
 

I have always been a fan of the wisdom credited to the American philosopher and Hall of Fame baseball player Yogi Berra. I often cite his statement that “You can observe a lot just by watching,” both with regard to visiting colleges and also to figuring out what is important in class. There is an inscrutable truth in observations such as “It’s like déjà vu all over again” and advice like “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And I try to live by Yogi’s admonition to “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”

Over the past couple of weeks I have been reminded of another Yogi-ism, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Several recent news items suggest that night well be true for college admission as an industry and as a profession.

The first is a recent Chronicle of Higher Education story reporting on a survey it conducted in conjunction with the Council of Independent Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Of the 292 colleges responding to the survey, 198 of them private and 94 public, 60 percent missed their enrollment goals last year, and 67 percent missed their goals for net revenue.

According to the survey, private colleges were more likely to miss their targets by a wider margin, and more than half reported missing both enrollment and net revenue goals. They are responding largely on two fronts, either investing in new programs hoping to attract a different group of students or raising the level of aid they provide, but many are also having to contemplate cutting programs or personnel.

The survey results hint at some deeper problems facing higher education. We know that there are a number of tuition-driven institutions whose health and perhaps existence are in jeopardy, including some venerable, respected places. Just in the past couple of weeks, Concordia University in Portland, Ore., announced that it will close at the end of the term after 115 years.

What is more troubling about the survey results is that they come at a time when many indicators have suggested, at least prior to the past week, that the American economy is healthy. Is that a suggestion that the economic model on which higher education has relied, raising tuitions paired with increased tuition discounting while adding student amenities, may no longer be viable? That alarm has been sounded multiple times over the course of my career, but in an article last fall, Bill Conley from Bucknell University quoted Yogi Berra to warn against seeing the coming challenges as “déjà vu all over again.”

But is this time different? Has sticker price reached a point where some families won’t even consider a private college education, especially in the face of uncertainty about student debt and job prospects for graduates? Is Chicken Little just paranoid, or might the sky be about to fall?

The coming “enrollment cliff” doesn’t offer a lot of reason for optimism. One of the consequences of the economic downturn of 2008 is that birth rates have declined 17 percent since 2007, according to Nathan Grawe, professor of social sciences at Carleton College and author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. That means about 800,000 fewer births per year. In a Harvard Business Review article last fall, Grawe observed that colleges will feel the results in the decline in births beginning in 2026.

Are colleges ready for the change? There has been a lot of talk about attracting a more diverse population to enroll in college, but Grawe points out that eliminating gaps in college attendance among underrepresented populations will not make up for the decline in births. One possible solution is improved retention. I recently talked with a university professor who said that her institution has begun preaching the necessity of retaining already enrolled students.

Not all colleges will experience the enrollment cliff the same way. Some of us may be the Roadrunner (Accelleratti incredinilus), able to defy the laws of gravity. Grawe projects that demand for highly selective colleges and universities will increase by 10 percent over the next five years. Far more of us will be Wile E. Coyote (Carnivorous vulgaris), thinking we’re fine until right before gravity kicks in and we plunge downward.

The gap between rich and poor may widen not only in enrollment and financial health. I worry that we are heading into an ethics gap as well.

The consent decree between the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the Department of Justice means that desperate institutions are now emboldened to abandon the shared commitment to principles and professional practices that have guided college admission offices in their dealings with students and with each other. Yogi Berra was right -- “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

The ethical infrastructure is proving to be far more fragile than we had hoped in the wake of the NACAC vote back in September to remove provisions banning poaching of students and incentives to enroll. In the fall we saw institutions pushing the ethical limits in offering incentives for students to apply early decision, and the end of prohibitions on recruiting transfers opens up a whole new market. Even admission officers who want to remain true to the ethics of the profession are being pushed by presidents and trustees to be more offensive-minded in the new landscape.

Now Albion College in Michigan is offering an “early deposit sweepstakes” (rebranded as an “early deposit awards program”) for students who deposit by March 6. Students who submit an enrollment deposit by that deadline will be entered into a drawing for twelve prizes. One student will receive free room for a semester, another a free meal plan for a semester, and five students each will receive either vehicle registration for a year or a $250 voucher towards the cost of textbooks.

The Albion sweepstakes in a potentially dangerous step down the path to an admissions landscape where anything goes. What Albion is doing is not technically a breach of the letter of the NACAC Code of Ethics and Professional Practices (not everyone may agree with that interpretation), because it makes clear that deposits are fully refundable up until May 1, but it is clearly a violation of the spirit of the code.

May 1, the National Candidates’ Reply Date, is a convention established to bring a sense of closure to the admissions process for both students and institutions alike. It is designed to be the “end” of the process, with students depositing at one and only one college. But of course it isn’t the end for many institutions. There are many colleges, and in the era of the enrollment cliff likely to be more, where recruiting a class extends far beyond May 1.

The principle behind May 1 is that students have a right to make a free, informed college choice knowing what all their options are. Colleges asking for, or providing incentives for, a deposit before May 1 threaten that fundamental principle. If the Albion sweepstakes merely incentivized students who had already determined that Albion is the college choice, that’s one thing. But if Albion is seducing students to deposit before they know all their options, it violates the principle of free choice.

If colleges adopt aggressive marketing and abandon ethics, it endangers already fragile public trust in the college admissions process and those who practice it. We are coming up on the anniversary of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, and that scandal is seen by a significant segment of the public as evidence that the college admissions process is corrupt. A widening gap between ethical haves and have-nots is neither in the public interest nor our interest.

Bio

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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