My first opportunity to serve our profession (beyond my daily counseling role) was as the assistant program chair for the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling conference in the spring of 1991. I had no idea that role would set me on a path that would eventually lead to serving as President of NACAC.
The conference was in Wilmington, Delaware, and the committee chair (my friend Lucy Neale Duke, currently a counselor at the McDonough School outside Baltimore) and I proposed that the conference theme be “Better Living Through Counseling,” a take-off on “Better Living Through Chemistry,” the slogan of Delaware’s leading corporate entity, DuPont. Unfortunately, the other members of the conference planning committee did not share our enthusiasm.
I was reminded of that theme several weeks ago when I saw that a Reuters investigation was alleging that a company had bought access to admissions officers at a number of top American colleges. At first glance I thought the company in question was DuPont, and wondered why a chemical company would diversify into the world of college admissions, but upon further review (as they always say after NFL replays), I realized that the company in question was not DuPont but the Chinese company Dipont.
The controversy surrounding Dipont is three-fold. At a basic level Dipont has been paying admissions officers from prestigious American colleges and universities, covering travel expenses and in some cases providing cash honoraria, to come to China for a summer program advising Chinese students who are Dipont clients on how to apply to American colleges. At a more complex level Dipont advertises itself as having a special relationship with those colleges, promising that the admissions officers become “exclusive consultants” to Dipont clients. And the ultimate underlying issue is that Dipont has been accused by former employees of encouraging behavior ranging from writing application essays for clients to changing high school transcripts.
Dipont (or should we call it Dipont-gate?) is, in other words, a textbook case study of the ethical challenges of recruiting in China. American colleges and universities look to China as a source of bright, full-pay students, but entering the Chinese market means entering a game where it is hard to know whether you are a player or being played.
Let’s attempt to sort through the ethical issues present in this case.
First of all, there is nothing necessarily wrong or questionable in an admissions officer having his or her travel reimbursed to attend the eight-day admissions workshop or serve as a presenter. That’s common practice in the United States. What is questionable is that it’s not clear that Dipont’s compensation was limited to travel reimbursement. According to the Reuters article, during the past two summers each admissions person received compensation worth $4500, with the option of receiving business-class airfare or economy-class airfare plus a cash honorarium. According to a Dipont consultant, one-quarter to one-third went for the second option. When an honorarium was paid, it was ordinarily done in cash, usually with $100 bills. I probably watch too much Law and Order, but payment by C-note is generally reserved for activities that are either illicit or likely to embarrass your mother.
Ignoring the method of payment, is there anything wrong with an admissions officer accepting an honorarium in addition to being reimbursed for travel? That’s a more complicated question. The NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice does not speak to that issue (although in light of the Reuters article, that may be about to change). But should an admissions officer receive payment, whether by check or in cash, for presenting at an event such as that workshop sponsored by Dipont?
That requires answering another question. Was Dipont contracting with admissions officers as individuals or as institutional representatives? In other words, were the individuals invited because of their personal experience and expertise as college counseling professionals, or were they invited because of where they worked? If their presence at the Dipont event was tied to their knowledge of the college admissions process and not their institutional affiliation, then accepting payment for services rendered is appropriate, as long as Dipont is advertising them as representing their institution. If they were invited because of their institutional role, then their remuneration should come from their employer, as part of their official duties on behalf of the college or university. If they were paid by both, is there potential for conflict of interest?
I think it’s clear what Dipont’s motivation was. It was marketing access rather than knowledge. The admission officers’ presence at the Dipont workshop implied a special relationship for Dipont clients at the colleges and universities represented.
From an institutional standpoint, are the colleges and universities involved complicit in sending the “special relationship” message? Should they have known better? Several years ago, when NACAC was considering expanding its college fair program to China, there were clear red flags. Representatives from the State Department advised members of the NACAC Board not to allow anyone in China to take their photo, lest the photo appear as evidence of NACAC sponsorship or support of some event or agency? An American working in China responded to concerns about fraud and misrepresentation by saying, “Of course they are going to cheat.” Did the desire for easy access into the Chinese market override concerns about ethics or propriety?
That question must be asked because the Reuters article quotes eight former Dipont employees who report that the company’s business practices are at the forefront of the application and credentials fraud that is endemic in China. That is ironic in that a non-profit set up by Dipont, the Council for American Culture and Education, has given $750,000 to the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California to create a program to combat fraud among Chinese applicants to American colleges.
Is dealing with fraud a consequence, unintended or recognized, of trying to recruit in China? Can we maintain our values and ethical standards in a culture where the norms are very different? Where is the line between being compensated and being bought? Hopefully the Dipont case will provoke new introspection and discussion about the tension between ethics and enrollment goals.