Ethical College Admissions: 3 Issues

Jim Jump has some worries about ethics as he surveys the admissions landscape.

January 10, 2022
Tetiana Lazunova/Getty Images

When the Department of Justice ended the ability of the National Association for College Admission Counseling to enforce ethical standards for the college admissions profession several years ago, there was widespread concern that the admissions world might turn into a Wild West. That hasn’t happened yet, thanks to the vast majority of colleges that have chosen to put students’ best interests first, but I have recently heard of three practices that hint at erosion of those ethical standards. If I wanted to be metaphorical, I might call them evidence of college admission climate change, or even “variants."

One of my students recently reported that he had been invited to apply to a university without having to pay an application fee. On the surface, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and in fact there may be an ethical issue in colleges collecting millions of dollars in revenue from application fees. What was interesting in this case was that the invitation came from a university with an admit rate close to 10 percent.

Normally waiving application fees is a strategy aimed at encouraging applications, and normally that happens when a college is worried about making its class. Obviously application numbers have become a metric of success and prestige for colleges and universities, but is there any justification for a university that is already turning away 90 percent of applicants waiving the application fee to incentivize students to apply? Does the university in question need more applications, or does it, like my children when they were younger, see “need” as a synonym for “want”? And is waiving the application fee any different than Harvard University sending out more than 100,000 letters several years ago encouraging students to apply when it already had one of the two lowest admit rates in the country?

What we have here might be an example of what I have previously referred to admissions “gluttony.” There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking more applications, given the pressures placed on admission offices by presidents, boards and bond-rating agencies. What is wrong is encouraging students to apply when they have almost no chance of being admitted, a practice known as “recruit to reject.” There is an implicit moral contract between colleges and applicants, with each having obligations. Among those obligations for colleges is treating each applicant as a human being deserving of respect and consideration. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that human beings should never be treated as means to an end, and “recruit to reject” does exactly that.

The second issue is an interesting take on test-optional admission. The university in question claims to be test optional but also recently said that only 600 of its nearly 6,000 places in the freshman class will be filled by students who haven’t submitted test scores.

Apparently that change was made in the middle of the admissions cycle, because I know several counselors who had gotten different messages about testing from this institution earlier in the fall.

There is definitely a mixed message here. The university lists TEST OPTIONAL in big letters on its website, but in smaller print describes its policy as “test flexible,” stating that “While we encourage students to submit standardized test scores, they are not required to consider admission or scholarship consideration.” I won’t attempt to parse that sentence.

Test optional and test flexible are not the same thing. Test optional means that the decision whether or not to submit scores is the student’s. Test flexible means that the university wants test scores but will grant exceptions. Test flexible is test optional with a wink, optional the way offseason NFL workouts are optional.

What “test flexible” means at this particular university is that students with a grade point average of 3.6 or better don’t need to submit scores. That raises the question of why test scores are relevant for some students but not others. Are test scores more predictive for a student with a 3.59 GPA than one with a 3.60?

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The bigger issue is having a quota for students who do not submit test scores. There was certainly circumstantial evidence last year to suggest that test-optional policies may have actually accentuated the value of good test scores, as many institutions admitted a higher percentage of submitters than nonsubmitters. That, however, is a very different issue than artificially restricting the number of students you will admit without test scores. Even worse is doing so without being transparent about it.

I wonder if more colleges will go the test-flexible route. When COVID-19 first hit and SAT and ACT administrations nationwide were canceled, an admission dean friend wondered out loud whether most colleges would be able to be anything but test optional, whether students would get to the point where they wouldn’t apply to institutions requiring test scores. Will selective colleges be able to risk a decline in applications because of fealty to test scores?

The third issue involves incentives for students to apply early decision. That is not a new issue, because even before the NACAC Code of Ethics and Professional Practice was defanged by the DOJ, there were colleges providing incentives for early-decision enrollees including things like preferences for housing and course registration and even guaranteed parking spots, which on some campuses might be worth their weight in gold.

A college counseling friend recently told me that one of her students had been told that applying early decision would increase the amount of financial aid the student would receive. That’s an interesting twist. For years the common wisdom was that early-decision applicants would receive a smaller package due to financial leveraging algorithms, with the college able to offer less aid to seal the deal because the student has already signified his or her intention to enroll.

I have wondered whether one of the admissions consequences of COVID-19 would be more focus on early decision, with colleges looking to lock in as much of the freshman class as possible early. That would explain preferential packaging for early applicants.

Then again, applying early might also becoming more appealing to students. A large portion of my senior class applied either early decision or early action, and I have noticed more of my students this year applying ED-2 than ever before.

I am a purist (perhaps even a dinosaur) who believes that early decision is a legitimate enrollment management tool, even if flawed by benefiting students from wealthy families who attend schools with savvy college counseling. I also believe that early decision should be a match between student and college, freely chosen and motivated by love. Providing financial incentives to early-decision applicants clouds the motive and also resembles the “and if you order now” mentality found in the old Ronco commercials. But in today’s climate, do colleges care why students enroll, as long as they enroll?

College admission has always been a balancing act between institutional interest and the public interest. The practices outlined above may be another sign that balance is shifting. Just as worsening coastal erosion is a warning sign of climate change, ethical erosion is a warning sign for our profession.


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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