Thursday, May 1, 2014

May Day! May Day!


I just returned from attending the Potomac and Chesapeake ACAC conference.  I did two presentations, and preparing for them has consumed most of my free time over the past several weeks.  That has diverted attention from the blog.  Several years ago Jeannine Lalonde at the University of Virginia, better known as “Dean J” thanks to her Notes From Peabody blog, told me that blogging is addictive, and I have found that to be the case.  After about two weeks without a post I start to panic that: a) I haven’t written anything recently; and b) I have nothing worth saying.  I’m going to try to address the first concern with several shorter posts over the next couple of weeks.  It remains to be seen whether that will prove the second concern right or wrong.

Today is May 1, better known as May Day.  What images May Day conjures up depends on your background.  It may mean dancing around the May Pole, Cold War-era Soviet bloc parades of military might, or the international distress call.  For all of us in the college admissions/college counseling profession May Day means only one thing, the Day of Reckoning that is the National Candidates Reply Date.  By the end of the day today high school seniors should have one and only one deposit in at a college, and college admissions offices should have a good idea about what their class looks like.  May 1 is not final, because there will still be movement on and off Wait Lists, but today marks a ceremonial and realistic conclusion to the admissions year.

May 1 assumes even greater importance for those of us concerned about the ethics of college admissions.  I would argue that May 1 is the most important convention that prevents admissions from degenerating into the Wild West, a landscape without law or order.  Having May 1 as a common date protects both students and institutions and keeps us from deteriorating into blatant self-interest at the expense of the common good and a sense of professionalism.

At PCACAC I attended a session titled, “Is It Ethical?” dealing with both the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice and some case studies that illustrate gray areas and the fact that no document is capable of covering every scenario. During the session, Lou Hirsh, retired Director of Admissions at the University of Delaware as well as Chair of the AP committee for PCACAC and a member of the National AP committee (also a friend and devoted reader of this blog), observed that the majority of admissions practices inquiries received at both the regional and national levels are prompted by colleges that ask for deposits (enrollment, scholarship, housing) prior to May 1.  Many (most?)  are not malicious in intent but motivated by self-interest, but asking for a deposit before May 1, even when refundable, has the potential to be coercive, to manipulate a student to make a commitment before they know all their options or are ready to choose among those options.

During the session two interesting things came up.  One was a discussion about whether assigning housing on a first-come, first-served basis is ethical.  The consensus in the room was that it is not, that it disadvantages students who are already economically disadvantaged, those who require financial aid and may have to scramble to come up with an enrollment or housing deposit.  I see both sides of that issue.  On one hand, all things being equal, first-come, first-served is defensible as a “neutral” way to assign housing or other benefits.  Then again, all things aren’t equal. A first-come, first-served process gives further advantage to students who are already advantaged, and first-come, first-served has the potential to manipulate student behavior, even unintentionally. Other means of assigning housing, such as a lottery, are fairer to all students.

The second was a comment from a Director of Admissions.  The essence was that we shouldn’t be surprised if erosion of the May 1 deadline doesn’t eventually lead to an increase in double deposits and an erosion of the idea that there is something inherently wrong with depositing at more than one college.

His comment touched a nerve.  I believe in the sanctity of May 1 and tell my students and parents that double-depositing is unethical, but I also see hypocrisy in college folks who see double depositing as a treasonable offense when so many colleges are violating the spirit of May 1.  When students and parents are led to believe that they will lose opportunities for housing and scholarships if they don’t commit prior to May 1, we can’t be incensed when they hedge their bets with multiple deposits.  The May 1 convention, like so much about college admissions, is an honor system, relying on all of us giving up what’s good for us for the greater good.  That greater good is public trust and confidence in the admissions process and calendar.

On this May 1 I hope we will look at the big picture and pledge ourselves to admissions practices that build trust and confidence.  We must remember and heed the words of Benjamin Franklin, who told the signers of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or we will surely all hang separately.”

Happy May 1.  May this day bring us happy students and full freshman classes, and may the phrase “May Day” signify the coming of spring and not an emergency call for help.   

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