Ethical College Admissions: Collusion

There are ethical issues about early decision, but the most important ones aren't those apparently being investigated by the Justice Department.

April 16, 2018
 

Last week the Trump administration launched an offensive on an enemy it has identified as threatening the American way of life. It’s not usual suspects like Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin or even the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And it’s not Bashar al-Assad or the Syrian government, because the offensive is coming from the Trump Department of Justice, not the Pentagon.

The threat in question comes from none other than admission officers at America’s colleges and universities. Last week the DOJ began an investigation into whether early-decision programs at some colleges violate federal antitrust laws. A number of liberal arts colleges received inquiries asking for documents and communications about their early-decision programs, particularly the sharing of information about early-decision applicants with other institutions.

Cue the headline “Collusion Goes to College.”

This marks the third time in 2018 that the Trump administration has investigated some aspect of the college admissions process. In January the DOJ requested documents from the National Association for College Admission Counseling regarding the newly passed "Statement of Principles of Good Practice: Code of Ethics and Professional Practices." And barely two weeks ago, Justice Department attorneys requested information from Harvard University in conjunction with an investigation into the treatment of Asian-American applicants.

So what are we to make of all this? Are the three incidents related? What’s the motivation? Did someone working in the DOJ have a child rejected by a first-choice college and decide to take out their frustration on higher education in general?

It wouldn’t be the first time. Back in the 1980s, there was investigation into one institution’s admission practices, initiated by a disgruntled father who happened to work at the Department of Education.

Is the new investigation a diversionary tactic? Is the Trump administration focusing on alleged college admission collusion as a way to divert attention from other forms of collusion, to which not only is justice blind, but Justice is blind?

Or is this part of a strategy to dismantle the Mueller investigation? Rather than firing Mueller for his apparent success in finding collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, will Mueller be “promoted” and reassigned to get to the bottom of the scourge of college collusion on early decision? You read it here first.

For veterans of the admission profession, this brings back memories of the Overlap Group investigation from the early 1990s. That investigation by the DOJ involved a group of 23 selective Northeast institutions that met each spring to exchange information about students applying for financial aid at multiple member colleges and to make common financial aid packages for those students.

The ostensible rationale for the Overlap Group was ensuring that students were able to make college decisions based on fit rather than economic incentives, but the Justice Department saw the sharing of financial aid information as an antitrust violation. One man’s leveling the playing field is another man’s price-fixing.

So is the investigation into early-decision practices similar? In both cases sharing of information is the heart of the inquiry, but the Overlap Group was sharing financial information about individual students and adjusting the amount of financial aid as a result of the group process.

In this case the only thing that seems to be shared is the names of students who have accepted early-decision conditions, agreeing to apply to only one institution early under the restrictions of the plan and withdrawing other applications and enrolling if admitted early decision. Seemingly the only students damaged by the sharing of names are those who have applied early decision at two different institutions.

Early decision has been an accepted convention within college admission for decades. It involves a contract (not legal, but moral) between the student and the institution. In exchange for a decision earlier than students who apply under regular admissions receive, the student agrees to enroll if admitted.

In theory both parties benefit from the early-decision agreement. For the college it provides certainty that a student admitted will enroll, and as a result it can be an important tool for managing enrollment (especially important now, at a time when yield models are unpredictable). For the student it simplifies the process, removing the need to complete applications to multiple colleges. It also gives the student an avenue to communicate that an institution is their first choice.

Of course early decision has always been, and continues to be, controversial within the profession, and a decade ago there seemed to be a movement brewing to end the practice altogether. Early decision has always benefited those already socioeconomically privileged or who attend high schools with savvy, knowledgeable college counselors. The prevailing wisdom has always been that those for whom financial aid is a necessity in making the college decision should not apply ED, although the earlier FAFSA filing date may be changing that.

It can also be argued that early decision has always benefited colleges more than students. The student promises to enroll if admitted early; early decision carries no comparable obligation on the college.

That raises a question I have asked before. At what point does the student’s early-decision commitment kick in? Is it when the student applies, when the institution admits or when the student enrolls?

Most of us interpret it as the former, but most colleges require early decision admits to pay an enrollment deposit to hold a place in the freshman class. If the commitment takes place at the time of application, why require the deposit?

And if the deposit is what “cements” the commitment, then there is no need for colleges to compare names of those who have applied early decision. That would also imply that students could apply ED to more than one place, obviously only depositing at one.

A complicating factor is that early decision has morphed into a different animal than it was originally designed to be. Many colleges take huge portions of the freshman class through early decision as a means to keep their overall admit rate low.

That changes the decision-making process for students and counselors. I used to preach that students should apply early if and only if they had researched colleges to the point that they had a clear, absolute first choice.

I’ve changed my tune. Today a student who wants to maximize their chances of getting into a highly selective college or university better use an early chip somewhere. It is not so much that applying early is advantageous as that applying regular is disadvantageous. I don’t like that, because it encourages decisions that are strategic rather than thoughtful.

It will be interesting to see if anything comes from the DOJ inquiries. Will government bureaucrats focus narrowly on practices that benefit institutions and may resemble restraint of trade (restrictive early action would be an example), or will the professional ethics of the college admission profession be deemed against the law?

We can’t control where the investigation goes, but we can and should engage in healthy discussion about the principles, assumptions and practices underlying the admission process.

Bio

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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