When the Department of Justice ended the ability of the National College Admissions Advice Association to enforce the ethical standards for the college admissions profession several years ago, there was widespread concern that the admissions world might turn into the Wild West. That hasn’t happened yet, thanks to the vast majority of colleges that have chosen to put students’ interests first, but I’ve heard recently about three practices that point to the erosion of those ethical standards. If I wanted to be a metaphor, I might call it evidence of climate change for college admissions, or even “variables”.
One of my students recently reported that they were invited to apply to a university without having to pay the application fee. On the surface, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and in fact there may be an ethical problem with colleges that collect millions of dollars in revenue from application fees. What is interesting in this case is that the invitation came from a university with an acceptance rate close to 10 percent.
Waiving the application fee is usually a strategy meant to encourage applications, and it usually happens when a college is concerned about making their class. Obviously, application numbers have become a barometer of success and prestige for colleges and universities, but is there any justification for a university that actually rejects the 90 percent of applicants who waive application fees to incentivize students to apply? Does the university in question need more requests, or does it, like my children when they were younger, see ‘need’ as a synonym for ‘want’? And is waiving the application fee different from Harvard sending more than 100,000 letters several years ago to encourage students to apply when it already had one of the two lowest acceptance rates in the country?
What we have here might be an example of what I referred to earlier as “gluttony”. There is nothing inherently wrong with asking for more applications, given the pressure that presidents, boards of directors and bond rating agencies put on admissions offices. The mistake is to encourage students to apply when they have almost no chance of being accepted, a practice known as “recruiting to refuse.” There is an implicit moral contract between colleges and applicants, and they each have obligations. Among those obligations, colleges have to treat each applicant as a human being worthy of respect and appreciation. German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that humans should never be treated as a means to an end, and “recruitment to refuse” does just that.
The second issue is an interesting experience regarding test-optional admission. The university in question claims it is test-optional but also recently said that only 600 of its 6,000 places in its freshman class would be filled by students who did not submit test scores.
This change appears to have been made in the middle of the admissions cycle, because I know several counselors who received various messages about testing from this institution earlier in the fall.
There is definitely a mixed message here. The university lists TEST OPTIONAL in capital letters on its website, but in smaller letters describing its policy as a “flexible test,” noting that “although we encourage students to submit standardized test scores, they are not required to be considered for admission or scholarships.” . I will not try to analyze this sentence.
An optional test and a flexible test are not the same thing. An elective test means that the decision to submit grades or not is the student’s decision. Flexible testing means that the university wants test scores but will grant exceptions. Flexible Test is an optional test with a wink, optional The way NFL off-season workouts are optional.
What the “flexible test” means at this particular university is that students with a GPA of 3.6 or better do not need to submit grades. This raises the question of why test scores matter for some students but not others. Are test scores more predictive of a student with a 3.59 GPA than one with a 3.60?
The biggest problem is allocating 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 already underlined the value of good test scores, with many institutions recognizing a higher percentage of applicants than those who did not. However, this is a very different problem from the artificially limiting the number of students you will accept without test scores. Even worse is doing it without being transparent about it.
I wonder if more colleges will follow the flexible testing path. When COVID-19 first hit and the SAT and ACT departments were canceled nationwide, a friend of the Dean of Admissions wondered aloud if most colleges would be able to be anything but test-optional, and whether students would get to the point where they wouldn’t progress to Institutions require test scores. Will selective colleges be able to risk dropping applications due to loyalty in test scores?
The third issue includes incentives for students to implement an early decision. This is not a new problem, because even before the distortion of the NACAC Code of Professional Ethics and Practice by the Department of Justice, there were colleges offering incentives to enrollees in early decisions including things like housing preferences, course enrollment and even guaranteed parking spaces, which at some universities may be Their weight is gold.
A college counseling friend recently told me that one of her students was told that applying the early decision would increase the amount of financial aid the student would receive. This is an interesting development. For years, the common wisdom has been that early-decision applicants will receive a smaller package due to leverage algorithms, with the college able to provide less assistance in closing the deal because the student has already indicated his or her intent to enroll.
I’ve wondered if one of the consequences of admissions for COVID-19 will be to focus more on early decision, as colleges look to secure as much freshman class early as possible. This would explain the preferential mobilization of early applicants.
Then again, early application may become more attractive to students. A large portion of my first class applied either early resolution or early action, and I’ve noticed that more of my students are applying ED-2 this year than ever before.
I’m a fundamentalist (maybe even a dinosaur) and think Early Decision is a legitimate tool for enrollment management, even if it flawed by benefiting students from wealthy families who go to schools with clever college advice. I also believe that the early decision should be a match between the student and the faculty, chosen freely and out of love. Providing financial incentives to applicants who make a decision early highlights motivation and also resembles the “if you ask now” mentality found in old Ronco commercials. But in today’s climate, do colleges care about the reasons why students enroll, as long as they enroll?
College admission has always been a balance between the institutional interest and the public interest. The practices described above may be another sign that the balance is shifting. Just as worsening coastal erosion is a warning sign of climate change, moral erosion is a warning sign for our profession.