Ethical College Admissions: Trust and Antitrust

Jim Jump reviews the ethical issues facing college admissions officials on May 1.

April 27, 2020

This coming Friday is May 1. In normal times that day offers numerous reasons to celebrate, but the need for social distancing will make it less enjoyable this spring.

We can still celebrate the birthdays of North Korea and SpongeBob SquarePants, and those who want to insist that Pluto is indeed a planet can commemorate the 90th anniversary of its discovery. But there will be no dancing around the maypole this year, except perhaps in Georgia and other states that have declared victory over COVID-19, and anyone wanting to throw a Soviet-style military parade will need to make sure that the tanks and missile launchers are at least six feet apart.

And what about the college admission world? In past years May 1 has been arguably the most important day in the admission calendar, the National Candidates Reply Date. In theory May 1 brings the admissions process to a close as high school seniors make an enrollment deposit. Of course in reality, May 1 is a convention, and for many institutions all over the country, the process of enrolling both freshmen and transfers has always been far from over.

May 1 is often referred to May Day, which just happens to be the international distress signal. More than ever before, this year feels like May Day could easily turn into “May Day! May Day!”

That is partly due to the pandemic, which has disrupted the college admissions process, although not nearly to the degree it has disrupted other parts of the economy. Just how devastating the coronavirus was going to be became clear just as many colleges were sending out final decisions, and the closing of campuses has meant that students don’t have the luxury of campus visits to help make final decisions. The National Association for College Admission Counseling's College Admission Status Update, which has information provided by close to 1,000 colleges and universities, shows that approximately half have changed their deposit date, meaning that for many students this year June 1 may be the new May 1.

It is also unclear how the pandemic might impact student and family choices about college. How many seniors’ college plans have been blown up by the fact that their parents have lost jobs or businesses? Will the economic toll lead students to stay closer to home and go to public rather than private institutions? Will colleges face a flood of financial aid appeals? And how many tuition-driven colleges are suddenly in jeopardy of having to close?

That leads to the second issue threatening to turn May Day into “May Day!” Even before the pandemic, there was genuine concern about how the college admissions process would play out this spring. That is due to the erosion in the ethical standards guiding admission practices arising out of the Department of Justice antitrust investigation into the NACAC Code of Ethics and Professional Practices.

Under pressure from the DOJ, NACAC removed provisions from the CEPP prohibiting “poaching” of students committed to or enrolled at other colleges as well as one prohibiting special enticements for early-decision applicants. NACAC has suspended enforcement of those provisions during the investigation, and several weeks ago, while the world was focused on the coronavirus and its repercussions, it announced plans to stop enforcement altogether and turn the CEPP into a document of best practices.

At the heart of the dispute between the DOJ and the college admission profession is a clash of worldviews. The NACAC code of ethics was grounded in the belief that institutions and professionals have a shared responsibility to the students we serve, and that what might be in my best interest may not be in the public interest. The DOJ acknowledged that has worked well in keeping the admission marketplace sane, but it sees any restrictions on colleges’ ability to recruit as restraint of trade. It also sees ethical rules as having the effect of preventing students from paying the lowest price, a view grounded in the assumption that college choice is first and foremost an economic decision.

There has been concern all year about what the landscape might look like after May 1 with the prohibitions against poaching no longer in place, and that has only increased as the pandemic has destabilized higher education. With colleges and universities losing millions of dollars this spring and summer from lost revenue and portfolios decimated by the drop in the stock market, enrollment has become more important than ever, especially for colleges barely keeping their heads above water.

The question is how aggressive and over-the-top recruiting will be after May 1. Will the gloves come off, and will poaching turn into looting? And can those of us who have given our lives to helping young people make decisions about their lives, whether as admission officers or as college counselors, hold on to any sense of integrity in desperate times? I know veteran admission deans who are fully prepared to play defense in the coming weeks but are being pushed by presidents and board members from the business world to go outside their ethical comfort zone and be more offensive in going after students.

The definition of an ethical dilemma is a situation where there is no satisfactory choice, and the college admission profession currently faces an existential ethical dilemma. Staying alive, whether personally or institutionally, is an ethical imperative, but not the only ethical imperative. Does the end justify the means? We also have an obligation to treat students with dignity and respect and not just as buyers for what we’re selling.

One of the lessons of the pandemic is the importance of trust. We have to trust that the person in front of us in line at the grocery store is practicing social distancing and not contagious. We have to trust health-care professionals to provide the best information and care about the virus, and we have to trust government officials to tell the truth and find the appropriate balance between keeping the public safe and reopening the economy.

That trust is no less important for the public as it navigates the college admissions process. Our credibility has already been damaged by the revelations coming out of Operation Varsity Blues that send a message that college admission isn’t fair and equitable. We risk losing whatever trust the public still has if we treat May 1 not as May Day but as May Day!

The change in the NACAC Code of Ethics and Professional Practices from mandatory to best practices doesn’t have to change the way we conduct ourselves. “Best practices” are just that, and whether or not the rules are enforced, the ethical principles underlying them are still compelling, calling us to act honorably and truthfully in our professional work. Just because something is permissible doesn’t make it a good idea.

Legally we don’t want to be guilty of antitrust violations, and ethically we don’t want to be a profession that’s anti-trust.


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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