Ethical College Admissions: Coaching for Poaching

A new report from EAB suggests that poaching may become widespread, but that doesn't make it wise, writes Jim Jump.

February 10, 2020 Petrov 96

Last week Virginia Tech football coach Justin Fuente announced that any of his players entering the transfer portal, the National Collegiate Athletic Association tool established in October 2018 to provide a structure for college athletes wanting to transfer to another team/institution, would not be welcomed back to play at Virginia Tech. Fuente received criticism on sports talk radio, not for the “You can’t break up with me, I’m breaking up with you” policy but rather the seeming incongruence of the timing of the announcement -- less than a month earlier, Fuente had entertained an offer to break his contract and go to Baylor University to fill its coaching vacancy.

A new report suggests that Fuente’s players may be as likely to be contacted by enrollment management professionals as coaches at other colleges and universities. Last week EAB, the consulting firm that purchased Royall and Company several years ago, published “Enrollment Strategy After the NACAC Vote.” The report is based on a survey of 159 enrollment managers conducted in October, shortly after the National Association for College Admission Counseling removed three provisions from its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices under duress from an investigation by the antitrust division of the Department of Justice.

For many of us the NACAC decision brings to mind the refrain from REM’s song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” But nobody feels fine. This past week I have had multiple conversations, all of which had concern over the impact of the lessening of the ethical standards that have guided the practice of college admission.

Last week I was on a panel at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities' annual meeting in D.C. devoted to the fallout from the NACAC decision. My fellow panelist, journalist and author Jeff Selingo, and I agreed that if colleges respond to the change in NACAC’s ethics code by engaging in more aggressive and manipulative recruiting practices, it will erode whatever confidence the public still has in the college admissions process in the wake of the Harvard University case and Operation Varsity Blues.

During the panel Selingo commented that he had been looking for the leadership of colleges and universities to speak up in defense of ethical recruiting. They have thus far been as outspoken as congressional Republicans willing to speak out about the perfectly appalling things that the president says and does. One college president in the audience commented that her institution is trying to uphold the NACAC standards voluntarily, but that she had been advised by legal counsel to remain silent.

There has been some question about whether voluntary compliance with the NACAC standards might be considered an antitrust violation. On Friday there was a hopeful sign. Back in September the Trump administration revoked a waiver that allowed California to set stricter emission standards for automobiles. When four automakers (BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen) announced that they would continue to follow the California standards voluntarily, the DOJ announced an antitrust inquiry. On Friday the inquiry was dropped.

Later in the week, I had a conversation with a college counselor worried about what kind of advice schools should be giving students and parents in the wake of the NACAC changes. Is it still best practice to advise students to have one (and only one) enrollment deposit on May 1? The counselor shared with me that several college admission deans had expressed the view that high schools should be enforcing the rules, and my counselor friend is not particularly interested in experiencing a real-life version of The Shawshank Redemption or Orange Is the New Black.

The anxiety and uncertainty are most profound for NACAC. The DOJ probe was an existential crisis for the organization. There are certainly those on both sides of the desk who are disappointed that NACAC didn’t fight the antitrust claim, but the cost of doing so could have put NACAC out of existence.

So where does NACAC go from here? Did the consent decree signed in December resolve its issue with the DOJ once and for all? Should NACAC continue to enforce the remaining parts of the CEPP, or is it time for NACAC to fall in line with most other professional associations and make its code of ethics a statement of best practices? What does NACAC become without its signature raison d’être? Can it remain relevant and influential without ethics as its foundation, and is that endangered if fears about admission turning into a Wild West come true?

The EAB report isn’t particularly encouraging. Twenty-three percent of those responding indicated that they would consider recruiting students who had already committed to attend another institution. That percentage is 54 percent for “very small” colleges, presumably places that are tuition-driven, struggling to survive and already having to continue to recruit after May 1.

As of the time of the survey, most enrollment managers were focused on defensive strategies (as discussed in a previous column). Those strategies include increasing the number of touch points with students already committed, making those touch points earlier and improving the quality of interactions. The report quotes one VP at a Southern regional university: “We’re looking to turn our orientation into something like a sales event, and that’s 100 percent due to the NACAC vote.”

Nearly a third of those responding were considering raising the amount of the enrollment deposit by as much as 200 percent to discourage students from withdrawing, but the report cautions that higher deposits may also discourage students from depositing in the first place. It also advises colleges to expect an increase in financial aid appeals from families seeking a better deal, and reports that EAB’s research suggests that financial aid deployed later in the process is less effective than the same aid awarded earlier.

The most significant news coming out of the report is that colleges are more likely to target already-enrolled students to transfer than to poach freshmen. Thirty-five percent of respondents indicated that they plan to recruit previously admitted students who enrolled at another institution, and 11 percent are considering recruiting as transfers students those at other colleges and universities regardless of previous application.

I suspect that reflects a recognition that the transfer market is an increasing part of many colleges’ enrollment strategies. That recognition was what led to rules on transfer admission being added by NACAC when the CEPP was drafted.

According to the EAB report, nearly 20 percent of those who initially enroll in four-year colleges transfer to another four-year college. Half do so in the first two years, a fact that is relevant both to transfer recruitment and retention of current students. Seventy-nine percent of public university transfers end up at other publics, and 62 percent of private transfers end up in the public sector. The need for lower cost is often a factor in decisions to transfer.

It isn’t often that college admission should look to college athletics as a model, but given the increasing attention to recruiting transfers, is it time for a transfer portal for any student interested in potentially transferring? Such a portal would save colleges money they might waste recruiting students with no interest in transferring, and it would ensure that students initiate the transfer process.

EAB’s final recommendation is to expect more aggressive recruitment. While many colleges are taking a wait-and-see approach, others are already anticipating how to take advantage of the rules disappearing, willing to risk anger from high school counselors and loss of trust by the public.

If enrollment managers feel the need to poach, my vote is eggs or salmon, but not elephant tusks or students.


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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