Ethical Dilemmas in College Admission

In order to empower individuals to apply and advocate for ethical practice in college admission, NACAC created a series of dilemmas to use as educational tools. Presented with each dilemma are discussion topics, possible approaches, and a reference to the appropriate section in the Guide to Ethical Practices in College Admission.

Topics

Confidentiality

An admission representative from the University of Demonstrated Interest places a call to a counselor at Eagle High School to discuss an applicant. In the conversation, the admission rep asks if the counselor knows if UDI is at the top of her list or not, saying that “the kid is on the bubble, and it would be great to have this information.”

Possible Approach

On the phone call, a counselor might consider asking the admission officer why it is important to know the answer to their question.

  • Counselor can remind the admission officer that the student has a careful and thoughtful list – one in which every school on the list is a place that the student would be delighted to receive an admission offer.
  • Counselor can also state that it isn’t the counselor’s role to tell, or even know, any kind of rank order and that they stand behind that student’s candidacy at the particular institution.
  • Counselor might remind the admission counselor that some factors may influence a final decision and that it is the student’s right to compare FA packages, merit scholarships, or a multitude of other factors that are unknowable until all offers are received.
Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section I.C, members should:

  • Not ask candidates, their counselors, their schools, or others to divulge or rank order their college preferences on applications or other documents.

Susan has applied to X institution and in a conversation with an alumni interviewer, she was directly asked to divulge to what other institutions she has applied for admission. While Susan continued with the interview in order to fulfill the requirement for her admission to X institution, this question made her uncomfortable and uncertain for what this may mean for her admissibility to X based on the other schools she is considering.

Possible Approach

A tenant of the Guide is that we take the time to educate our constituents (fellow members, colleagues, and the students with whom we work) on their rights in the college admissions process and one of these is confidentiality and trust.

While Susan may not feel she has the place to complain to the office of admission at the institution where she hopes to enroll, Susan should feel empowered to discuss this scenario with her college counselor or parents who may be able to speak on her behalf.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section I.C, members should:

  • Not ask candidates, their counselors, their schools, or others to divulge or rank order their college preferences on applications or other documents.
And referenced in the Core Values: Professionalism

We are responsible for the integrity of our actions, and insofar as we can affect them, the actions of our member institutions, organizations, and individuals.

*In this case, the alumni interviewer is an individual representing a member institution.

The scholarship application for X University requires students to upload two teacher letters of recommendation and doesn’t offer an alternative method of submitting the documents to keep the letter of recommendation confidential. Unfortunately, in your high school’s handbook it prohibits giving students copies of their recommendation letters because that would violate the school’s confidentiality standards. You don’t want your student to miss out on a scholarship opportunity, but you also can’t violate your school’s policy. Your teachers write honest, thoughtful, and truthful letters because they can remain confidential.

Possible Approach

Hopefully a phone call will solve the issue! Call the appropriate office at X University and explain the situation. Once it becomes clear that the student will not be able to apply for the scholarship, and thus be less likely to enroll at the university, a solution can usually be found. Rarely will the college alter the entire application process, but they often will allow the counselor to submit the recommendation letters via email as an alternative. Advocating for a more long-term solution in the future is advised, but sometimes the small present-day win is enough.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section I.C:
The college admission and counseling community depends on trust. An important component in building this trust is maintaining confidentiality.

Members should:

  • Send and receive information about candidates in confidence and protect the confidentiality of all information that is shared
  • Adhere to their institution’s policies for confidentiality

During lunch, the Social Studies teacher says, “Oh, where did Elizabeth get accepted? I bet she applied to some big-name schools. How much scholarship money has she received?”

Possible Approach

“Elizabeth has future plans she is really excited about.  You should ask her about them! We encourage students to be in control of their process, including how and if to share their admission decisions.  It is ultimately their information to share, their story to tell.”

Then, you could take the conversation a few different directions. You could encourage the teacher to connect with the student, or you could steer the conversation toward the entire class, by saying something like “I’m so proud of the Class of 2021. They have been working extra hard this year!”

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section I.C, members should:

  • Not divulge an individual student’s college application status, admission, enrollment, or financial aid and scholarship offers without express permission from the student.

Truthfulness & Transparency

“Our institution has the second highest graduation rate in the state.” Upon a quick Google search, you realize the Admission Officer is incorrect. Their institution has the second highest graduation rate out of the public universities in the state, but out of all universities in the state they actually have the 7th highest graduation rate. They also didn’t give the students the exact graduation rate percentage.

Possible Approach

If possible, speak to the Admission Officer one-on-one at the end of the presentation. Thank them for visiting your school and sharing information about their institution. Then, present the problem. “In the presentation, you mentioned your institution has the 2nd highest graduation in the state. Based on my research, I think this is a misrepresentation of the information. Do you know where you received this information?” Hopefully this will begin a productive conversation that leads to a correction of the information shared.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section I.A, members should:

  • Share information about students that is relevant to the college admission process as well as accurate, up-to-date, and free from misrepresentations of fact or material omissions

Cline School provides colleges and universities each year with a school profile document, outlining courses offered annually, grading scales, and historic averages of its previous graduating class. It comes to the attention of an admissions office that data reported on these documents does not reflect the most updated information (submitting previous years’ data, only changing the date range in the header with no changes to reported information from previous year, and does not accurately portray grading scale details, etc.).

Possible Approach

It is important to give the benefit of doubt in these particular scenarios, because our work should be conducted out of a place of collaboration, collegiality, and trust. Colleges may use information provided on these documents to understand context of school and/or course availability. Incorrect data may directly impact how an applicant is reviewed for admission. An initial step would be to encourage the admissions representative to contact the college counselor to inquire about updated data or confirmation of data. This also provides the additional benefit of relationship building across the desk.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section I.A, members should:

  • Accurately describe, represent, and promote their schools, institutions, organizations and services to students and to colleagues and should not misrepresent themselves or their institutions
  • Share information about students that is relevant to the college admission process as well as accurate, up-to-date, and free from misrepresentation of fact or material omissions.
Secondary schools should:
  • Ensure that the data reported on school profiles and other documents is accurate and current.
  • Be transparent about when the data was gathered and the groups that are included or excluded from the data.

Susie White, an American citizen, has spent her high school years in Mozambique, where her father works. Although she identifies as white, she decides to apply to college identifying herself as African-American, reasoning that she has lived on both continents and believes this may afford her an admissions edge.

Possible Approach

In this scenario, a counselor might begin by asking Susie if she knows the definition of African-American. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an American of African and especially of Black African descent.” Descent is an important word in this definition. Many definitions also refer to descendants of enslaved Africans. A counselor might also approach this conversation with questions such as, “Tell me about this choice–why is it important to you?” and “Is there another way to indicate that you have spent time living in Africa?” In the end, if Susie cannot get there herself, it’s important to note that based on definition alone, and regardless of her intentions, her answer will be perceived as misleading at best and a lie at worst. And colleges will not look favorably upon that.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section II. A, members should:

  • Educate students and families of their ethical responsibilities in the admission process, including counseling students that it is unethical to:
    • Submit false, plagiarized, or fraudulent statements on applications or other documents.

You see the following post on the College Admissions Counselors’ Facebook page: “I have a student who deposited at Atlantic Ocean University (AOU) prior to May 1st, got their welcome packet in the mail, secured off-campus housing, etc. In contacting the university during the second week of June about another issue, AOU informed the student that he was not enrolled for the fall. Apparently, they sent out a preference letter in an email to him, and the student thought he had already completed all his preferences, so he overlooked it. Nope! There is not a spot for him. He was told he can reapply next year. Is this an attempt to weed out the over enrolled population? Or is this normal protocol…” Replies to the post all put AOU on blast and pile on, relaying similar stories of ways people feel AOU has acted unethically.

Possible Approach

In the spirit of pillar of education, it appears that the university and the social media posters need to be made aware of the Guide.  The university needs to know that the Guide exists and that there are professional best practices.  The posters need to know that the ethical guide that they feel the university isn’t following also states NACAC members shouldn’t disparage each other.

As an individual, you can reply to the thread, encouraging the original poster to contact the university directly (perhaps emailing their regional contact and copying the director), assuming the university is unaware that they haven’t followed NACAC’s best practices, and cite the section of the Guide to illustrate this point.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section I.B, members should:

  • Maintain a culture of collaboration and collegiality, members should not disseminate inaccurate, misleading or disparaging information about other secondary schools, colleges, organizations, or individual professionals.

 

As a counselor, you always ask students to read their essays so you can assist them (and it often helps you to get to know their story). Millie Van Nilly is a student who has been receiving Cs in their regular English classes since 9th grade. But when she brings you her essay, it is beautifully written. In fact, it doesn’t sound like Millie at all. It sounds professional.

Possible Approach

Start asking questions of Millie. Some possibilities are:

  • How do you feel about this essay? 
  • Which parts are you most proud of?
  • Where is your voice in this?
  • How did you come up with the idea for the topic?

You could even be direct with Millie and ask her outright if she wrote it. If she admits that she either didn’t write it or had “too much help,” you might suggest she start over. And reminding her that it is her ethical obligation to turn in work that is her own might also be a great idea!

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section I.B, members should:

  • Educate students and families of their ethical responsibilities in the admission process, including counseling students that it is unethical to:
    • Submit false, plagiarized, or fraudulent statements on applications or other documents.
 

Admissions Dates/Deadlines

After reading about Shady University’s early action program and receiving an invitation to apply as an early action, Florence submits an early action application for the nursing program. She submits her completed application by the December 1st early action deadline and awaits her early action decision, which is supposed to arrive no later than December 31st, according to the Early Action Program at Shady University. She receives a timely decision, but while it states that she is accepted to Shady University, it also states the nursing program is at capacity. She contacts the admissions office and is told that the Priority Deadline for the nursing program was November 1st, but she will be considered for a space if one becomes available. Florence is confused, upset and surprised.

Possible Approach

Florence should discuss this situation with her school counselor, who should feel empowered to contact the institution and suggest that the priority deadline for the nursing program be better aligned with the deadline for the early action program.  The counselor could also suggest that the priority deadline and the limited availability be communicated as part of the early action program information (i.e. instructions, invitation, etc.) 

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

Section III.A (Application plans)
Non-restrictive application plans Colleges allow students filing applications using one of these non-restrictive plans to submit applications to multiple institutions. It is recommended that colleges allow students who are offered enrollment using one of these plans until at least May 1 to confirm their intent to enroll. Colleges should disclose whether admission to their institution or to any of their programs or majors or selection for scholarships is on a first-come, first-served basis.

  • Early Action (EA): Students apply by an earlier deadline to receive a decision in advance of the college’s Regular Decision notification date.
Section III.B (Definitions and Glossary):

Priority deadline: A priority deadline is an application deadline that colleges may establish for programs and majors that have limited space. The deadline may also be used for students who want to be considered for specific scholarships.

John has been admitted to the Honors College at X University, an offer which is contingent upon his formal enrolling in the program and to the institution by March 15. While he is excited about this opportunity, he is also hopeful to receive offers of admission and scholarship to several other institutions, all of which have indicated he will have until May 1 to formally decide. John doesn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to attend the Honors College at X University, but he is feeling pressured to enroll without being able to consider all of his options.

Possible Approach

In this scenario, John should feel empowered to contact the Honors College or Admissions Office asking for an extended deadline to make his decision that falls in line with the dates that have been offered by the other institutions. This scenario is referenced extensively in the Guide as being incongruent with a student-centered admissions process. The student may request to have until May 1, referencing the National Candidate Reply Date recognized by NACAC.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section II.A:
The recommendation for member institutions is to create an admissions process that is fully student-centered and free from coercion. Stated recommendations for member institutions related to this concern are as follows:

  • National Candidates Reply Date: Colleges should use the widely recognized date of May 1 as the earliest enrollment confirmation deadline. Before being asked to make an enrollment decision and to commit to an institution, students should have time to hear from each school that admitted them and receive notice of:
    • Offers of financial aid and scholarships
    • Admission to honors and other special programs
    • Availability of housing
  • Members are encouraged to work with other campus offices such as academic departments, housing and financial aid to create a consistent deadline that does not require students to make a commitment or accept an offer prior to May 1.

Having been accepted to a nursing program, Flo Nightingale is told the housing deposit is due March 15. Flo wants to wait to hear from another nursing program that won’t notify until April 1. She approaches you as her counselor, wondering how to make the request for an extension of time for admissions’ consideration between the two programs.

Possible Approach

Managed admissions programs often have a good deal of information conveyed from sources outside of the undergraduate admissions department itself, and it’s not always the case that everyone across campus is aware of those communications.  Regardless of where and when that information is publicly disclosed, the admissions department at the institution could serve as an intermediary between the student and the nursing and housing departments on its campus: not every staff and faculty member on campus is likely aware of the national candidate reply date of May 1st, and regardless of the competitive nature of a program or of housing availability, all parties will likely want a student to make an informed decision in choosing their institution, rather than one made from pressure, to matriculate and retain the student from their initial point of admission.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section I. A:

Colleges should make publicly available comprehensive, accurate, and current information concerning:

  • All deadlines including admission, scholarships, financial aid, and housing.
As outlined in Section II.A:

National Candidates Reply Date: Colleges should use the widely recognized date of May 1 as the earliest enrollment confirmation deadline. Before being asked to make an enrollment decision and to commit to an institution, students should have time to hear from each school that admitted them and receive notice of

Members are encouraged to work with other campus offices such as academic departments, housing and financial aid to create a consistent deadline that does not require students to make a commitment or accept an offer prior to May 1.

Taylor has been admitted to Goal University and contacts the university’s transfer admissions department about next step after applying. Taylor worked hard at her current institution, and does wonder how coursework will transfer in, too. They inform Taylor that the university’s policy is that in order to produce a transfer credit evaluation and run a degree audit, the university must receive an enrollment deposit and will not produce a formal degree audit until that’s received. It does, however, send students a link to their online transfer credit equivalency database to review potential transfer credit. Taylor’s deposit is due in two weeks.

Possible Approach

The transferring of course credit at many universities can be a complex process involving numerous departments, faculty and staff.  While credit transfer databases may be helpful in answering some credit-related questions, they rarely address all courses requiring review.  However, most universities should be able to confirm how many credits will likely be transferred, as well as how they apply to the curriculum at the receiving institution.  In the dilemma, the tool is really key: if it’s efficacious and derives from the transfer data set, then it could give Taylor a sense of what transfers.  If not or if vague, then ideally the college explains the nuances in more detail (which many transfer counselors are happy to do!).  The student should be empowered to ask that enrollment confirmation and/or deposit be deferred until additional information is provided by the university.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section II.C:

To ensure  an equitable and transparent process, transfer candidates should not be asked to make a commitment to enroll until they are able to review all relevant information including financial aid awards and estimates of how credits earned at previous institutions will transfer and apply toward a degree at the receiving institution.

Coffey University accepts a student off of the waitlist. In the email informing the student of this decision, Coffey University states that the student has 24 hours to respond to the offer or it will be revoked.

Possible Approach

If the student has been admitted off the waitlist post May 1, technically the college is allowed to shorten the timeline. That being said, the student and counselor should still feel empowered to call and request an extension. The student should say something like “Thank you for the offer of admission. I am so excited! Could I have an extension on the decision deadline? I need a little bit of time (give an exact amount of time if possible, such as 3 days) to discuss this opportunity with my guardians.”

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section II.A:
NACAC members believe that college choices should be informed, well-considered, and free from coercion. We believe that admission practices should be student-centered and should not be designed to manipulate students into applying to or enrolling at a college or university before they are ready.

And Section II.B:
Colleges should:

  • Not require a deposit or set a fee for remaining on the waitlist
  • Allow students who are offered admission from the waitlist after May 1 at least 48 hours before requiring a verbal or written commitment to enroll
  • Notify students of their financial aid offer and availability of housing before requiring a commitment to enroll

Early Decision

Nirvana and Utopia, two similar universities, often compete for the same students. Utopia has started to offer perks for students who apply early: preferred housing, free books, daily morning lattes and afternoon ice cream.

Possible Approach

Consider the context in which Nirvana became aware of Utopia’s perks. 

  • If the information was shared with Nirvana from a concerned high school counselor, the counselor might consider sharing their concern with Utopia.
  • If the Nirvana learned of Utopia’s incentives from a shared applicant to both universities, an opportunity exists to remind Utopia of their commitment to protect students from coercive intrusion into their decision-making process.
Remember that an education-focused approach and professional communication solve many ethics-related dilemmas.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section II. A:

NACAC members believe that college choices should be informed, well-considered, and free from coercion. We believe that admission practices should be student-centered and should not be designed to manipulate students into applying to or enrolling at a college or university before they are ready.

Paul Privilege, an outstanding student from an affluent family, is delighted by his ED acceptance to his highly selective dream school. Before withdrawing applications to his other schools, as his counselor suggested, he hears from an EA college that he has been offered their Presidential Scholarship – a $35,000 per year merit award. His parents want him to accept that despite their signed ED agreement.

Possible Approach

Paul should request a meeting with his school counselor to discuss this dilemma.  Together, they should revisit the terms of the binding ED agreement that was signed and discuss the ethical responsibilities involved in the admissions process.  

Additionally, the counselor could share what negative implication such a breach of agreement might have on future students from his high school.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

Section I.B

To provide college admission counseling in the best interest of students, members should:

  • Educate students and families of their ethical responsibilities in the admission process, including counseling students that it is unethical to:
    • Fail to notify colleges where they have decided to decline their offers of admission.

Section III.A:

Students commit to a first-choice college at the time of application and, if admitted, agree to enroll and withdraw their other college applications. Colleges may offer ED I or II with different deadlines. Students may be required to accept a college’s offer of admission and submit a deposit prior to May

A student has applied ED to a U.S. university’s primary campus. The university has subsequently offered the student a space at its campus based in Europe instead of a space at its primary campus. The university is requiring confirmation and deposit by March 1st.

Possible Approach

Some U.S. universities maintain campuses abroad.  When an ED agreement explicitly states that applicants can (student choice) be considered for another campus of the university, AND that if an offer is made, the student will be held to the same conditions and timelines outlined in the agreement regardless of which campus they are offered ED admission to, then this dilemma falls within ethical guidelines.

As a counselor or student, a conversation with the university may be helpful in ensuring that communication to and with students is clear and transparent can be very helpful.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section II.D:

Colleges outside of the United States should:

  • Make publicly available accurate, comprehensive, and current information concerning:
    • Admission deadlines, including application and enrollment confirmation deadlines.
    • Admission criteria, including required specialized admission tests.
    • Academic courses/ programs.
    • Availability and types of financial assistance.
    • Availability and types of institutional housing.
  • Ensure that all translations of admission materials accurately represent the content of the original language.

Commissioned Agent

A prospective international student was contacted by a commissioned agent representing a U.S. university. The student replies, stating his interest in the university, and they schedule a meeting. The student subsequently receives another email from the same individual but promoting a different university. When asked about the second email, and how many universities he represents, the agent explains that he primarily works for the first university and says nothing more. The meeting continues without further discussion of the second university.

Possible Approach

The student could be advised to schedule a call or virtual appointment directly with the admissions office of the first university.  Either the student or their counselor should share the details of the commissioned agent’s communication with the student.

If the student doesn’t have access to a counselor, this dilemma may not be known to any of the represented universities.  This dilemma showcases the importance of transparency and governance practices in the employment of commissioned agents.

Which section of the Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission can you find information relating to this topic?

As outlined in Section II.D:

NACAC members believe that if institutions choose to contract third-party agents to recruit on their behalf, the institutions should hold these agents to the same ethical standards as they do their staff members .

Recommendations for Implementation

Colleges employing agents should:

  • Disclose that they have employed agents to recruit on their behalf.
  • Ensure that commissioned agents are accountable for employing ethical business practices.
  • Respond quickly and decisively when responding to reports of misconduct of the agents representing them.