Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Desperation


Nearly a quarter century ago I took a three-year hiatus from my college counseling career to take a job as admissions director at an independent school.  I left college counseling reluctantly, because I loved the school and the kids I worked with, but I was commuting 160 miles round-trip daily and my wife told me I could consider any job I wanted as long as it was in Richmond.

I realized quickly that the school was struggling, far more than I had been told.  I attended a Board meeting before I started the job, and while casually reading the minutes of the previous meeting discovered that just a month before a motion had been made and defeated to fire the Headmaster, the person who had just hired me.  I began my first day on the job, a month before the opening of school, counting up all the returning and prospective students and discovered that the best possible scenario was 40 students shy of the minimum budget number.  The Headmaster had no clue.  Perhaps most telling was that when I went to the business office to get paper clips, they asked me how many I needed.  The school couldn’t afford to give me a whole box.

Less than two weeks before school started, I attended an emergency evening meeting with the Headmaster and the Executive Committee of the Board. They wanted me to make cold calls to try to recruit last minute enrollments.  I refused, telling them that if word got out on the street that we were desperate, the school would never recover.  The school might need that approach or that kind of admissions director, but I wasn’t willing to do that.  I stood there waiting to be fired, but one trustee spoke up and backed me, and the rest of the group backed down.

But what happens when you really are desperate? A recent New York Times article about falling college enrollments mentioned two institutions, Loyola University in New Orleans and St. Mary’s College of Maryland, that have fallen far short of their enrollment goals this spring, forcing them to cut their budgets by millions of dollars.

One paragraph in the article raised eyebrows among those of us in the profession.  Loyola was reported to have called students who had been accepted but not enrolled, including sweetening financial-aid offers.  The Times article stated that recipients of the calls included students who had already deposited elsewhere, a violation of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.

Loyola officials responded both to the NACAC Exchange and to InsideHigherEd (which did a follow-up piece) that they had been misunderstood, that the school had made the calls and financial aid offers only to accepted students who hadn’t informed Loyola that they were going elsewhere.  I appreciate the clarification from Loyola, but am also glad to know that the NACAC Admission Practices Committee will apparently investigate based on complaints made by NACAC members after the Times article appeared.

I am more intrigued by the larger questions raised by the articles. 

The most obvious has to do with May 1.  What are the ethical imperatives implied by the May 1 National Candidates Reply date?  Is May 1 the “end” of the admissions process, such that it is improper for institutions to recruit after that date? Should institutions like St. Mary’s and Loyola get a “pass,” given that financial stewardship, saving employees’ jobs, and staying in business are all in some sense ethical objectives? Are we about to see new attempts to erode the May 1 deadline?

Let me answer the last question first.  I certainly hope the answer is no.  I consider May 1 the most important convention for preserving sanity and ethical practice in the college admissions world.  The May 1 date clearly provides protection for students to ensure they receive all decisions before making a final choice, but I would also argue that it provides protection for colleges, both as a benchmark for judging where enrollment stands and also as a guard against deterioration into a Wild West mentality.

It is also clear that the admissions cycle continues past May 1 for many institutions, including rolling admissions schools, those utilizing Wait Lists, and schools that have to deal with considerable summer melt.  There is nothing wrong with recruiting students after May 1, IF those students haven’t deposited at another institution.  It is appropriate to contact accepted students who have not deposited or informed you that they are going elsewhere, but conversations must stop once it is clear that a student has committed to another school, and financial exigency does not change that.

Are the shortfalls faced by Loyola and St. Mary’s anomalies, unique to those institutions, or canaries in the enrollment management coalmine? In the past week I have heard about two other institutions with freshman classes smaller than expected, although nowhere near the same degree as the two institutions named above.  At least one tried to cut back on its discount rate, only to find a corresponding drop in deposits. This spring I found that economic considerations seemed to drive college decisions for my students far more than I have ever seen before, choosing public over private and in-state over out-of-state.  I’m not sure if the decisions are driven by ability to pay or unwillingness to pay, but if it’s happening with my families, it has to be a wider phenomenon.  Will college admissions officers need to rethink fundamental assumptions? 

The ultimate question is whether college admissions can walk the fine line between being an industry and being a profession.  What distinguishes the two is the degree of commitment to the public interest as well as self-interest. Can we continue to agree on a set of principles that serve all of us well even when they might not always serve me well?  I hope so.  As Benjamin Franklin said about signing the Declaration of independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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