I have found myself thinking about storms a lot lately. This is the middle of the tropical storm season in the Atlantic and Caribbean, and as I write this Hurricane Matthew has hit the Florida coast after ravaging Haiti, and coastal residents throughout the southeast have been advised to evacuate.
A different kind of storm season came to an official end without apparent incident last Saturday. Over the past year there has been a lot of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over the feared perfect storm of changes to the college admissions process—new SAT, the Coalition, early FAFSA--impacting students in the Class of 2017. The immediate threat from that Bermuda Triangle of admissions changes (how’s that for a metaphor that’s both tropical and mixed?) passed with the October 1 date allowing students and families to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid three months earlier than in previous years.
It’s too early to draw conclusions about the threat or damage from any of the changes, but it seems safe to say that predictions that the college admissions process as we know it might get blown up aren’t going to play out in 2016-2017. At the NACAC Conference in Columbus College Board President David Coleman said the right things in apologizing for the clumsy rollout of the new test and problems with reporting scores in a timely fashion. The Coalition was nowhere near as visible or talked about as a year ago, and I suspect that’s deliberate to buy a year to make sure the application platform works as promised.
Of the three changes, I have felt that the earlier availability of the FAFSA and the ability for families to use “prior-prior” year tax information in applying for financial aid has the greatest potential impact on college admission. One long-time (or “seasoned,” the euphemism my youthful new boss is using to describe me) admissions dean I respect predicted last fall that “prior-prior” could mean the end of the May 1 Candidates Reply Date as colleges move up application and financial aid deadlines for competitive advantage. I hope that won’t prove to be the case.
Prior-prior is another skirmish in the war over whether college admission will be a profession or a business. That is, of course, hardly an either/or distinction. The “college admission as business” train left the station a long time ago. There is no question that college admission is a business. Whether it qualifies as a profession is still up for grabs.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the medical profession, Paul Starr argues that three things are characteristic of professions. One is an orientation toward service rather than profit. Second is self-regulation, with standards of good practice and a code of ethics. Third is authority based on technical, specialized knowledge.
Starr’s definition exposes the existential dilemma those of us who are college admission/college counseling practitioners face. We like to talk about college admission as a profession devoted to serving students, but those who employ us do so not primarily for the service we provide but for the net revenue (profit) we produce. College counseling and admission increasingly require specialized knowledge and expertise, but joining the profession doesn’t involve a particular credential, and the school counseling establishment treats college counseling as a stepchild or afterthought. And while concern for self-regulation and professional ethics has been the cornerstone for NACAC since its founding more than 75 years ago, today market pressures create a constant tension between institutional self-interest and the public interest.
So what does this have to do with the earlier availability to file the FAFSA and the ability for families to use tax information from the prior-prior year (if a student is entering college in 2017, they use 2015 tax information on the FAFSA)?
Last fall, when the Obama Administration announced the move to an earlier FAFSA, I heard colleagues at small, private, tuition-driven institutions anticipating that earlier FAFSA availability would have three unintended consequences:
1) consumers expecting earlier aid offers;
2) a market where institutions would encourage students to apply for admissions and financial aid even earlier; and
3) potential for an arms race where institutions are pressuring students to make earlier commitments.
I have yet to see that happening widely this fall, but it may be that colleges and universities are spending this year adjusting their financial aid processes to align with the Federal changes. A recent article by Beckie Supiano in the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that different segments of the higher education community are preparing differently, but results from a recent survey suggest that two-thirds of colleges anticipate significant changes in their enrollment and financial-aid operations.
How significant those changes are depend on an institution’s market position and on where it falls on the business vs. profession spectrum. At a basic level, prior-prior means that the time frame for financial aid, both for families and for institutions, can be decompressed. Families don’t have to wait until January to receive their year-end tax information to file the FAFSA, and colleges have more time to process aid packages. Students can make thoughtful decisions about where to apply with better information about what is affordable. That supports our profession’s emphasis on college decisions based on good information and fit. It serves our students and us well.
Where Prior-Prior becomes dangerous is when it becomes a tool for competitive advantage. We don’t need application and financial aid timelines accelerated any more than they already are, we don’t need earlier application deadlines, and we don’t need new incentives to coerce students to commit earlier. We also don’t need a culture where financial aid becomes an extended negotiation, although that may be an unintended consequence. A greater emphasis on yield activities is also likely to be a consequence.
It is too early to know whether the winds of change emanating from Prior-Prior are refreshing breezes or hurricane force. Storm-like conditions bring out both the best and worst of humanity. I hope our profession will weather the coming storm without evacuating our principles.