The news seemed to stun an entire profession. On Tuesday, admissions officials and college counselors learned that the U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether the organization that represents them has violated federal antitrust law. At issue: the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s new 15-page ethics code.
This week the department requested information from several members of a committee that recently helped revamp the association’s “Code of Ethics and Professional Practices,” an extensive list of rules and standards that govern the admissions process. After receiving a “civil investigative demand” for documents from the department, one committee member told The Chronicle she was so shaken she had to sit down right away. Another member said he was baffled because the notes he had to turn over “are pretty boring.” As news of the investigation spread, many people in the field express their dismay on social media. “This is bonkers,” one admissions director tweeted, “BONKERS.”
Why, in a nation full of problems, is law-enforcement’s top dog sniffing around an admissions association’s long-winded ethics code? No immediate answer came from the Justice Department, which declined a request for comment. So did Joyce E. Smith, NACAC’s chief executive officer. In a message to members on Tuesday, the association said it knows “little about the scope and intent of the inquiry.”
For now, let’s take a closer look at why the code in question matters. The document weaves together high-minded goals and nitty-gritty dos and don’ts. Most everyone in the field applauds its intentions, yet some question its breadth and impact. Like the admissions process itself, the ever-evolving code has long provoked strong feelings — and controversy. After all, it’s an attempt to strike a balance between the interests of high schools and colleges, all the while protecting students, too.
Sure, there is plenty of lofty prose in there. Several passages convey the profession’s ideals, which, the preamble says, include “honesty,” “integrity,” “fairness,” and “respect for students and fellow professionals.” By any measure, colleges often fall short of such goals.
Still, some of the association’s members consider the document inspirational — and essential. “It’s sort of like our Hippocratic Oath,” says Patrick J. O’Connor, associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “It underpins every aspect of what we do — a tool that provides some degree of transparency and consistency.”
And there are rules, lots of them. Section II explains “responsible” admission practices in precise detail. It prescribes the kinds of early-application programs a college can adopt, as well the timeframe for application season. No, a college can’t set an application deadline earlier than October 15. Yes, college must give applicants (excluding those admitted through binding early-decision programs and athletic scholarships) until May 1 to choose among admission and financial-aid offers. And colleges, the code says, “must not use on-campus housing assignments to manipulate enrollment commitments prior to May 1.”
Such guidelines help ease confusion among families, many college counselors say. If colleges were free to set a September 15 application deadline, Mr. O’Connor believes, students with the greatest resources would have an even greater advantage over their less-fortunate peers, especially those who have college counselors with 500 seniors to advise each fall. The ethics code “takes some of the pressure off the competitive element of the process,” Mr. O’Connor says. “It helps create a playing field where more students can make a thoughtful, clear, informed decision.”
A Revised Code
Over time, NACAC’s guiding document has changed to reflect the wide range of students the profession serves. For years, members grappled with whether to let U.S. colleges use commission-based agents when recruiting students abroad. In the end, the association voted to allow the practice, so long as colleges followed certain guidelines.
And just last fall, NACAC unanimously approved substantial revisions to the code, adding new sections on the recruitment of transfer and international students. Now, colleges must not ask transfer applicants to submit a deposit before giving them an aid award — and an estimate of how many of their credits will transfer.
Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver, led the committee that overhauled the ethics code. Many changes, he told The Chronicle at the time, were made with applicants’ interests in mind. Example: When offering first-year applicants a spot on a waitlist, a college now must tell them how many students are typically admitted from it, and whether or not financial aid and housing are likely to be available.
“Students,” Mr. Rinehart said, “should have a sense of, ‘Jeez, do I even have a chance of being admitted?’”
What if colleges don’t comply with all those rules? Though no professional code is a legal document, the new document has more teeth. One possible sanction: Exclusion from NACAC’s popular college-recruitment fairs.
W. Kent Barnds has thought a lot about the association’s guidelines — and the reasons for adhering to them.
When Mr. Barnds took his first job in admissions, at Elizabethtown College in 1992, his boss handed him a booklet — NACAC’s ethics code. He devoured the whole thing even before reading up on the college he would represent. “It was my introduction to how important these practices and principles were,” he says. “I understood from Day 1 that I was going to be something more than a just a salesperson.”
These days, Mr. Barnds, who oversees admissions at Augustana College, in Illinois, distributes new copies of the ethics code to his staff each year. “It’s what makes us a profession,” he says. “The guidelines aren’t just about protecting students — they’re also about how we are treating each other as competitors, the promises we make about how we behave toward each other.”
Still, Mr. Barnds, like many admissions officials, has quibbled with the document — or efforts to change it — over the years. Sometimes he’s done more than that. At NACAC’s annual conference in 2015, for instance, he wore a homemade sandwich board inviting members to ask tough questions about proposed changes to the code.
At the conclusion of the conference, the association voted to bar colleges from asking applicants to list or rank their college preferences on applications or other documents. Although Augustana at the time didn’t ask applicants where else they had applied, it did ask accepted students where the college ranked among their options (top choice? top three? top five?).
The answers to that question helped the admissions staff determine which applicants to prioritize when wooing the admitted, Mr. Barnds says. Yet some college counselors argued that even that question ran afoul of NACAC’s guidelines, and Mr. Barnds feared that the association would prohibit colleges from asking it (that didn’t happen).
Weighing the competing concerns of high-school and college members is a tall order. “Sometimes this becomes more about colleges being held accountable by counselors,” Mr. Barnds says. “Sometimes the document is used as a cudgel.”
Part Constitution, Part Law
Jon Boeckenstedt agrees. “Whenever somebody doesn’t like the way a college is doing something,” he says, “the thought is, ‘We should put this in the [ethics code] to prohibit behavior like this.’”
Mr. Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University, describes the document as part constitution (a broad framework of principles) and part law (specific restrictions). The new version, he believes, leans too heavily to the latter.
“If a college wanted to say, ‘Apply by August 1 and get everything out of the way before your senior year,’ there’s a percentage of the population that would be thrilled not to have to go through the pain of applying during their senior year,” Mr. Boeckenstedt says. “Why shouldn’t they be able to?”
Then again, such questions have two sides. As Mr. Boeckenstedt concedes, high-school students who need the most guidance and support might be especially vulnerable in a world where colleges had more room to use what he describes as “sales-y, promotion-y” incentives to solicit applications as early as possible.
Nobody thinks NACAC’s ethics code is perfect. But with the uncertainty of the Justice Department’s inquiry suddenly looming over an entire field, plenty of admissions professionals are taking another look at its purpose — and importance.
J. Carey Thompson, vice president for enrollment and communications at Rhodes College, in Memphis, has found that the code gives him “a touchstone,” something to point to when helping presidents and trustees better understand the context for strategic decisions — and how those decisions might affect students. “Without it,” he says, “the market pressures are such that we would be in a Wild West situation pretty quickly.”