One of the things I used to like about the college admissions process was that there is a rhythm to it, a beginning and an end. I say “used to like” because that long ago ceased to be the case. I feel sorry for those who make the mistake of asking me around this time of year if this is my down time, but not as sorry as they probably feel for themselves once they have to listen to me explain that my job isn’t finished once the seniors are put to bed, that the spring is even busier trying to get juniors starting the search process.
Recently a close friend, now a venerable admissions dean, reminisced about when we worked together as young admissions officers back in the late 1970s. During the summer there were interviews to conduct and fall visits to schedule, but our days were so laid back that we spent hours with the Assistant Dean of Students on what was billed as the world’s largest crossword puzzle. Those days disappeared long ago on the college side, and today I am shocked when I hear about a school college counselor who doesn’t work during the summer.
It is tempting and comforting to think of May 1 as the “end” of the admissions cycle each year, but the past couple of weeks have brought several reminders of how misguided that belief is.
The first reminder was receiving several e-mails from colleges still looking to fill their freshman class now that May 1 was past. There is an art form to such communications. You want to look welcoming without seeming desperate.
The most creative this spring came from a friend who is a rising star in the profession and Dean at one of the good liberal-arts colleges located in the Midwest. He used the “X is the new Y” metaphor--“Orange is the new Black,” “60 is the new 40,” “Ted Cruz is the new Barack Obama” (that will offend everyone on both ends of the political spectrum)—to suggest that “June 1 is the new May 1.” He didn’t elaborate on that assertion, but the rest of the e-mail made the point that his institution still had room for a handful of qualified applicants who hadn’t yet made decisions.
The “June 1 is the new May 1” claim was obviously designed to get my attention, and it worked. Is that true, or becoming true?
I hope not, if the statement is insinuating that May 1 is no longer relevant. I believe that the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date is the most important convention maintaining sanity and order and ethics in the college admissions process, and any attempt to subvert it would be a tragic mistake, leading us down a path to unprofessionalism and chaos.
The statement “June 1 is the new May 1” does recognize that the coming of May 1 does not end the admissions process for many institutions and many students.
I have previously written about how Wait Lists have become a regular part of the admissions process, with up to 20% of my seniors ending up at their final destination after getting off a Wait List, and shortly after May 1 the dominoes started falling. Some of that is by design, as colleges use Wait Lists as “ED-3” to sculpt the class and reward demonstrated interest. Some of it is related to the fact that predicting yield is an exercise in inductive reasoning, with future projections based on past experience. I recently had a conversation with the Dean of Admissions at a leading national university who observed that models for acceptance and yield are no longer reliable, that every year is a new experience.
There are clearly institutions where the admissions process routinely continues after May 1. There are also certainly students out there who aren’t aware of the significance of May 1 and operate on their own time frame. During that same summer when I spent my afternoons working on the crossword puzzle, I took a phone call one morning from a girl who had just graduated from high school. She hadn’t bothered to apply to college and was inquiring about the following year. I quickly determined that she was a good applicant, someone we would have admitted in the top half of our class, and despite the fact that we had a record freshman class, we were in a position to admit one more. She ended up coming and becoming one of my wife’s closest friends.
So what are the rules of engagement for institutions that find themselves past May 1 and significantly short of their enrollment goal? That question was raised in an article last week in InsideHigherEd.com. That article raised concerns that some colleges may attempt to “poach” (in the hunting sense, not the cooking sense) students who have already deposited elsewhere by offering them more financial aid dollars. Similar concerns were raised last summer when several institutions experienced major enrollment shortfalls.
I am not someone who sees most ethical issues as black and white, but this one seems clear. It is certainly permissible for an institution short on enrollment to contact students who have not responded to an offer of admission, as we know that many students do not inform colleges that they will not be coming, but it is unethical to contact a student who has already made a commitment to another institution or declined your offer of admission. What is questionable is sweetening a financial aid offer to a student who has not explicitly told you that finances are preventing him or her from coming. That suggests that you believe that college selection is only about price and not about value. We are naïve if we think economic considerations are not substantial parts of the college decision, but do we want students choosing for economic reasons alone?
The other troubling piece from last week’s article was a quote from a Dean of Admissions whom I know and have written about. The quote stated that you can be “more straightforward in doing the right thing” when you’re in a strong enrollment position. I hope the Dean was misquoted. The article provided two examples—the college not matching an aid offer from another college and advising a student to enroll elsewhere rather than assume significant debt—and I agree that both are not the wrong thing to do, but the suggestion that doing the right thing is dependent on the strength of the college’s enrollment position is not in my opinion what our profession should stand for.