Ethical College Admissions: Looking for a Coronavirus Silver Lining

Jim Jump considers the issues.

April 6, 2020

In April 2007, on the morning after a gunman killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus, a student asked me if I thought the tragedy would give him a better chance of being admitted to Tech off the waiting list. I tried to keep my face from showing how stunned and appalled I was by the question and quietly suggested that perhaps there were more important things to be thinking about in that moment.

The student meant no harm or offense and was clueless how crass and lacking in empathy his question was both in substance and timing. If I give him the benefit of the doubt, I think he was really trying to ask a more significant question. He wanted to know how that tragic event would change things.

The desire to anticipate the consequences of an action or event, to link cause and effect, is uniquely human. The French philosopher René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” but he may have had it backward. The truth may be “I am, therefore I think.” Trying to find meaning in the midst of tragedy, light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of despair, is a fundamental human need after you have satisfied the more basic needs identified by Abraham Maslow, such as food, shelter and clothing. Perhaps Maslow should have added toilet paper to that list.

I have been asked several times in the past couple of weeks how the pandemic will impact the college admission process, and my answer is that it’s too early to know. We are in the midst of a rapidly changing situation.

On Super Bowl weekend, two months ago, I was in Washington for a panel. While riding the Metro I noticed a woman wearing a face mask and for the first time wondered whether I should be concerned about COVID-19. One month ago I was starting my spring break without any clue that by the end of the week the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament would be canceled. During the same couple of months, we have gone from the federal government claiming that the coronavirus was totally under control in the U.S. to the federal government telling us that the best-case scenario is that there will be “only” 100,000 deaths from the pandemic. In this kind of fluid situation it is dangerous to speculate.

I was therefore surprised a couple of weeks ago to see an article on the Forbes website with the headline “Coronavirus Silver Lining: Easier to Get Into Many Top Colleges.” I was intrigued but assumed the headline was clickbait, designed to pull in readers to an article that doesn’t live up to the headline’s promise.

It is and it isn’t. The first sentence of the article makes the claim that “high school seniors in the United States are suddenly more likely than ever to get the proverbial ‘fat envelopes’ or acceptance letters from their dream schools,” but the rest of the article doesn’t provide any evidence to support that.

The article quoted admission professionals like Bill Conley from Bucknell University, Christoph Guttentag from Duke University, Rock Jones from Ohio Wesleyan University and Bob Massa, most recently at Drew University, but unless I’m misreading the quotes or failing to read between the lines, none of them said anything that would lead one to believe that colleges are admitting more students this spring as a result of the pandemic. I reached out to one of them over the weekend but haven’t received a reply. I hope that means they are trying to stay healthy both physically and emotionally and having a weekend away from work or in-boxes.

So where does that conclusion come from? It seems to arise from conflating five concurrent issues or trends. That certainly could be a legitimate analysis, but it could also be a case of adding 2+2 and extrapolating to arrive at an answer of 5.

The first issue is the experience of Bucknell and other institutions that struggled to fill their classes a year ago. Bucknell missed its freshman class target by 2 percent last spring and had to go heavily to its waiting list, and Bill Conley wrote several articles suggesting that projecting yield and managing enrollment are more unpredictable than ever before.

The broader question is whether Bucknell was a canary in the selective-admissions coal mine. A lot of us were surprised that a place as high in the pecking order as Bucknell struggled to fill its class. But just as the landscape may be changing for the high-tuition, high-discount economic model that has driven higher education pricing, are we at a point where the admissions gulf between haves and have-nots is increasing? Will more good colleges find themselves unable to sustain the illusion of selectivity by means such as taking half the class through early decision?

The second issue mentioned in the Forbes article is the reliance many institutions have on international recruitment. Several weeks ago the Department of State suspended routine visa requests, including student visas. Will colleges and universities have to look to domestic students if that suspension continues into the fall?

The third issue is the financial stress already facing small, private, tuition-driven colleges. Last week MacMurray College in Illinois announced that it will close in May after 174 years, citing the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic disruption as confirming factors, but not causes, in the decision to close. There are undoubtedly numerous other venerable and good institutions that could become institutional victims of COVID-19.

The Forbes article mentions two other related issues. One is the economic impact of the pandemic on families’ ability and willingness to pay for college. Will we see more financial aid appeals this spring, and will families be inclined to look to in-state public colleges and universities? And what will the uncertainty do to accelerate the erosion of ethical practices by colleges and attempts to poach students? Are we about to see the Wild West many of us feared now that the DOJ has removed sheriff NACAC?

All of those issues have the potential to disrupt and change college admission in the immediate future, but I am skeptical of the claim that the coronavirus is making it easier to get admitted to a “top” college this spring. The article was posted on March 22, and most colleges had either already sent out decisions or were in the process at that point. Unless college admission offices had more foresight than the rest of us about the impact of the pandemic, they wouldn’t have changed their admission models that dramatically at that point (if I’m flat wrong about that, I’d like to know). The issues raised by the Forbes article are all legitimate -- they just don’t prove the conclusion.

The article does raise a bigger ethical dilemma. What’s the balance between optimism and reality when it comes to communicating about difficult issues? That’s a balancing act I constantly deal with in my college counseling practice. What serves students best, encouraging them about colleges where they are unlikely to be admitted, or helping them understand the reality of their situation? Doctors face the same issue in communicating with patients, and it has been an issue for the Trump administration during this crisis. Does the public need a dose of optimism or a dose of reality? Does the promise of a silver lining, whether with regard to college admission or the public health, make things better or make things worse?


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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