Last week a minor furor erupted following an announcement by The Common Application that member schools can add a question asking students to list the colleges to which they are applying.  Todd Rinehart, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment and Director of Admission at the University of Denver (a Common App member) as well as Chair of the NACAC Admission Practices Committee, wrote an op-ed for last week’s NACAC Bulletin laying out his personal (rather than official) views on the topic, and a number of people, mostly from the secondary side, have posted on the NACAC Exchange regarding the decision.

It remains to be seen whether this is a minor border skirmish in the battle between institutional interest and student sovereignty or a major attack designed to further erode the principles that have guided college admission and counseling.  It also remains to be seen if this is another sign of the morphing of the Common App as it becomes a bigger player in the college admissions landscape representing a broader spectrum of member colleges.  Last fall the organization announced that it would no longer require members to use holistic review of applicants, previously one of the bedrock principles underlying the Common Application.  Is the next change the current Common App requirement that members schools be NACAC members in good standing?

The change potentially puts Common App members at odds with the Statement of Principles of Good Practice. The SPGP does not prohibit schools from asking students where else they have applied.  The Mandatory section of the document prohibits colleges from asking students to rank their preferences and also states that students may not be required to respond. The Best Practices section of the document recommends that colleges not ask.

So colleges may ask the question, but should they?  In a recent post, I wrote about the Naturalistic Fallacy, which states that just because you have ability to do something doesn’t mean you should.  This blog’s conception of what is ethical extends beyond what is or isn’t permitted by the SPGP, so let’s examine the ethical issues.

In a post a couple of years ago regarding the University of Iowa’s decision to add a question on its application tied to sexual orientation, I argued that while I applauded Iowa’s desire to send a message about its openness to the LGBT community, the application should include only questions relevant and necessary to determining an individual’s merit or fit for admission. Does the “Where else are you applying?” question meet that test? 

Unless I’m missing something (always possible), there are two possible reasons for colleges asking that question, only one of which might be related to the admissions process itself. Colleges and universities have a legitimate interest in knowing what their overlap schools are, but there are more efficient ways than asking students on the application.  The best way would be for Common App to provide that aggregate information to its members after the completion of the admissions year.  If students must be asked, survey them after decisions have been made rather than as part of the application.

The more likely reason for asking the question is yield management, and it is here that we land on shaky ethical ground.  First of all, asking a student to report where he or she is applying is an infringement of privacy.  That information is owned by the student, and is not the college’s business.  Even when the question is optional, it is still coercive. Does optional mean truly optional or NFL off-season workout “optional”?  As a counselor, I generally advise students to answer optional questions.  This one will be different.

That’s due to the potential for inappropriate use of the information.  In a post two years ago, I detailed the case of a college wanting to Wait List one of my students because “we won’t get him.”  They were aware of the other colleges on his list through an alumni interview, and falsely assumed he wasn’t seriously interested because of the other places he was applying and because he hadn’t applied for their merit scholarship, which they were obviously using as a measure of Demonstrated Interest.  In fact he had scheduled the alumni interview as a way to demonstrate interest and chose not to apply for the scholarship so that they wouldn’t assume he had no interest if he didn’t receive one.  We protested and the college relented, but not before letting us know how offended they were that we would question their judgment.

I get that yield is an important enrollment management metric, and that it is harder to predict than ever before.  What bothers me, though, is that a number of institutions are trying to predict yield not to stabilize enrollment, but as a metric of prestige, as a way to keep admit rate as low as possible.  The only thing worse than asking a student to rank their choices is to make assumptions about a student’s interest without them knowing, whether based on the application list or the student’s FAFSA rank order.  Both are unethical because they turn students into pawns in a chess game they don’t know is being played.     

There are two larger issues that this discussion identifies.  The first is a growing chasm between high schools and colleges regarding how the college admissions process should be conducted.  That is not news, but one of the things that make college admission counseling a profession rather than a business is a shared set of core values and conventions based on what is best for young people in a crucial developmental process.  I fear we are losing that.

The other issue is that the current admissions/application process has become a vicious circle that serves none of us well.  This is the time of year when we will read stories about how this is the toughest admissions year in history.  Students and parents (and counselors) respond by submitting more applications, especially given that no college wants to be a safety school.  The increase in apps makes yield hard to predict and increases use of yield tools such as Early Decision and Wait Lists.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Is it time to rethink college admission?