Ethical College Admissions: Admit Rates

Is it ethical to withhold the data? Jim Jump considers the issues.

April 4, 2022

Last Thursday the Ivy League universities released regular admission decisions for the incoming Class of 2026. It’s not among my favorite days as a college counselor, although I’m appreciative that they released on March 31 and not a day later. That would be a cruel and humorless April Fools’ joke for many applicants.

I’ve always believed that if you set your expectations low enough, you’ll rarely be disappointed (does that make me a pessimist or a realist?), and I find myself practicing that mantra at this time of year. I have been doing college counseling long enough that the emotion I experience when my students get good news is relief rather than joy. I’m ecstatic for those with good news, but that is more than counterbalanced by the disappointment and empathy I feel for my students who have done everything right and yet get denied or wait-listed at the nation’s most rejective college and universities.

I often tell my students that they have a right to be disappointed but shouldn’t be shocked by decisions. I’m rarely shocked but often disappointed.

A number of years ago, I remember an admissions dean at an Ivy or Little Ivy commenting that if a student is a legitimate candidate for the nation’s “elite” colleges and applies to enough of them, they would likely be admitted to one, but perhaps not the one they hoped for. That stopped being the case long ago. I also remember the legendary admissions dean Fred Hargadon telling me that when he was at Stanford University, he had the flexibility to admit a great kid who had gotten shut out from the most competitive colleges. By the time he ended his career at Princeton University, that flexibility had gone out the window, and that was at a time when places like Princeton were admitting 15 to 20 percent of applicants rather than 3 to 4 percent. To borrow a phrase from journalist Linda Ellerbee, “And so it goes.”

Last Thursday morning The Wall Street Journal published an article reporting that three Ivies—Princeton, Penn and Cornell—would forgo announcing their acceptance rates. They follow in the footsteps of Stanford, which stopped releasing admit rate data at the time of admission back in 2018.

The rationale behind the decision to withhold the information is that publishing the absurdly low admit rates is, according to admission officers referenced (but not quoted) by the WSJ, “doing more harm than good, ratcheting up panic among high-school students and their parents and perpetuating a myth that it is nearly impossible to get into a good college.”

A statement on the Princeton admissions website states that its decision is part of its “student-centered approach to the admission process.” It goes on to say, “data points such as overall admissions rates and average SAT scores shouldn’t influence a prospective student’s decision about whether to apply to Princeton. We know this information raises the anxiety level of prospective students and their families and, unfortunately, may discourage some prospective students from applying.”

I’d like to scrutinize both rationales more closely. The decision to not report admit rates may be preferable to the celebratory “best year ever” press releases that too often seemed to be crowing, “We’re so glad that we could turn down so many of your students,” but I wonder whether withholding the information serves students or serves institutions.

Does publishing admit rates harm students? Does the panic felt by students and parents arise from the data, or the reality reflected by those data? Or is the source of stress the focus on prestige, the belief that the harder a place is to get into, the better it must be? I would argue that it is the worship of selectivity, both by institutions and by students and parents, that produces panic and harms students.

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Is the perception that it is nearly impossible to get into a good college a myth? That depends on how you define the terms “good college” and “nearly impossible.” There are certainly plenty of good colleges in America, perhaps even a plethora, and many of them admit the majority of applicants. But if your definition of “good college” includes Ivy-like admit rates, then having a 3 to 4 percent chance of admission (lower for the average applicant) would seem to qualify as “nearly impossible.” Ask the 96 to 97 percent of applicants who aren’t admitted (along with their counselors) if it is a myth that it is nearly impossible to get into a “good” college.

As for Princeton’s statement, it presents two different arguments. One has to do with increasing anxiety in students, and the other has to do with discouraging applications. We have already addressed the first contention, that publishing the data increases anxiety and panic. The second argument, that the information may discourage some students from applying, seems less student-centered than institution-centered.

I think there are two ethical principles at stake here. The first is transparency. The college admissions process can seem mysterious, and it is the responsibility of all of us to make that less the case. Decisions about applying to college should be based on accurate information rather than speculation or guesswork. Having an idea of your chances of admission would seem to be relevant information in choosing where to apply. While it is true that a student can find the information if they know about the Common Data Set, it is also the case that if we are reluctant to be transparent about our practices, that may tell us something about those practices.

The second principle is respect. Colleges have a relationship with the students who apply, and that relationship creates certain obligations. The argument not to report the reality of low admit rates resembles Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men telling Tom Cruise, “You can’t handle the truth.”

If we respect those with whom we are in relationship, we should also trust that they can handle the truth. If we believe that students entering college should be treated like adults, then we should trust them to be able to handle the truth, because being able to deal with reality, even unpleasant reality, is essential to being an adult. Withholding information is the worst form of paternalism.

The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is generally a good ethical principle, and it may also be applicable in this case. Would colleges, and college admission offices, prefer to have accurate information hidden from them out of concern for their well-being? I’m guessing not.

I respect the institutions’ concern for alleviating student anxiety. I just don’t think that withholding the truth is the way to do it.

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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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