Ethical College Admissions: Open for Business

Should a college have a waiting list and also be recruiting students? Jim Jump wonders.

May 11, 2020
 
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Last week the National Association for College Admission Counseling released its annual College Openings Update: Options for Qualified Students, formerly known as the Space Availability Survey. Hopefully that name change will prove less problematic for NACAC than another rebranding, the change from Statement of Principles of Good Practice to Code of Ethics and Professional Practices.

The survey is always a valuable tool for counselors trying to help students find a college option at this time of year. This spring it takes on deeper significance as the first data about how the pandemic is impacting college admission. That occurs in the midst of a national debate over fact versus faith, information versus gut feel.

That debate has a lot in common with the process of researching colleges. I tell my students that researching colleges involves a combination of information and gut feel. The two shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but they often are.

Is that related to gender? A close friend who retired after more than a half century as a legendary public school counselor reported that girls returned from campus visits having noticed every detail, whereas boys didn’t remember if there was grass. Working at a boys’ school, my students return from college visits with one of two reactions, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” and I am constantly trying to bore down into what that really means.

The debate between information and gut is playing out as America deals with the coronavirus. For the past couple of months, those of us who believe in making decisions based on data have tried to make sense of the spread of the disease and the success or failure of our response.

Why has COVID-19 hit some areas harder than others? Has social distancing flattened the curve, and are new cases and deaths declining or plateauing? Do we have adequate numbers of tests, PPE and ICU beds?

It appears the forces of gut feel are winning. We are declaring the country “open for business” not because of evidence that we are safe from the disease but because we have run out of patience with the cure.

Higher education has not been immune to the clash of fact versus faith. There has been plenty of speculation about how the pandemic would impact college admission this spring and into the fall. Will campuses open in the fall? Will families be willing to pay the same amount for a virtual experience? Will students choose to defer college or take a gap year, and if so what will they do if gap year programs can’t operate and there are no jobs? There have been a spate of announcements from colleges and op-eds from college presidents about being open for business this fall, and right now they seem rooted more in faith than fact.

Nearly 750 colleges and universities have responded to the NACAC survey stating that they have vacancies for freshmen or transfer students, compared with 419 a year ago. That is a nearly 80 percent increase in colleges participating in the survey.

I skimmed through the list and didn’t find any real surprises. There were a couple of surprising names that had openings for transfer only, but most of the more selective colleges meet enrollment gaps by using wait lists rather than posting “open for business” signs on the NACAC survey. The chatter thus far is that more institutions are going to wait lists more actively than in previous years. The ripple effect, of course, is greater “summer melt” on institutions farther down the pecking order.

There are also institutions that haven’t listed vacancies on the NACAC list but have announced that they will accept applications. There is a certain etiquette to soliciting new applications after a deadline has passed. You never admit it’s because you’re short on numbers, because you may look desperate. It’s best to tie the extension of accepting applications to some natural disaster. In most years you have to hope for a volcano to erupt in Iceland as a cover story, but this year the coronavirus is a legitimate reason for reopening enrollment.

I have heard a number of counselors talk about the pandemic increasing the gap between rich and poor, and I wonder if that’s true for institutions as well as students. Wealthy, prestigious colleges and universities have wait lists to make up enrollment deficits, whereas tuition-dependent colleges are left to scramble to survive, perhaps left with no alternative but to attempt to poach students committed to competitors.

But as the chasm between rich and poor widens, are there colleges that will end up in no-man’s land? I’ve wondered if there are colleges the marketplace will no longer allow to maintain the illusion of selectivity. That will create new challenges and ethical dilemmas.

I don’t normally read College Confidential, but a colleague alerted me to one such ethical dilemma presented in its pages last week. A student who is on the wait list at a flagship state university had learned that same university was listed in the NACAC survey as having openings. She wondered how the university could be looking for students at the same time it had students stuck on the wait list hoping to get off.

That’s an interesting question. Do colleges have an obligation to students on wait lists, and is it kosher for a college to solicit additional applications and not admit students already sitting on the wait list?

That, of course, raises larger questions. Primary among those is what being on a wait list means. The most common answer is that being on a wait list is a message from the college that it would like to admit the student but doesn’t currently have space. According to that understanding, the college will admit the student as space becomes available.

The answer is more complex. For colleges wait lists are an umbrella insurance policy for years when May Day turns into Mayday! Wait lists can be a tool admission offices use to sculpt the freshman class. If there is a shortage of out-of-state women, they may admit only out-of-state women off the wait list. There are a number of colleges that may have several thousand applicants on a wait list, few of whom have a legitimate chance of being admitted. Why so many? Because admission offices know the strength of interest from the wait list erodes each day that passes.

It may also be the case that the common understanding of what a wait list means is wrong. If being on a wait list might mean that the college would like to admit you but doesn’t have room, it might also be the case that being on a wait list means that the college doesn’t want to admit you but will if it must.

I don’t know which is the case in the College Confidential example. I think the university in question has the right to decide whom it admits off the wait list or to leave its wait list intact while it puts up the “open for business” sign and solicits other applications.

That doesn’t mean it should. Colleges and applicants are in relationship, not a business transaction, and as the philosopher W. D. Ross has pointed out, every relationship imposes ethical duties. In the admission process, those duties include respect and empathy for every applicant.

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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