Ten or twelve years ago a student came to me several weeks after the May 1 deadline and told me that he thought he had made the wrong college choice.  He wanted to know if he could contact the university he thought was the right choice and see if it would still allow him to enroll.


I wasn’t encouraging, explaining that May 1 was designed to bring finality to the college admissions process (ignoring the Wait List phase) and that it was unlikely that the desired institution would have space available or be willing to consider a deposit in mid-May.  That seemed to settle it, although someone told me over the summer that they had heard the student was attending the second institution.


I didn’t think any more about it until early September, when my secretary gave me a message to call the new Dean of Admissions at the Ivy League university where the student had originally deposited.  My first thought was that the student must have switched schools and not informed either the first school or me.


That wasn’t the case.  The student was attending the original choice, but the Dean had received an angry phone call from the Dean of Admissions at the second school.  I ultimately learned that the student had contacted that school in May at a time when an enrolled freshman had just switched from Arts and Sciences to Engineering, and rather than go to the Wait List the Admissions Office offered my student the spot.  He had deposited at the second school but matriculated at the original choice.


Several days later I received a letter from the Dean at the second school.  He was ostensibly reporting on my student’s behavior but there was also a not so subtle implication that my office had acted improperly.  The letter stated that the student’s actions did not demonstrate the integrity, honor, and responsibility that our school seeks to teach students, and he made the point that what bothered him most what an apparent lack of good faith.  The letter concluded with an invitation for me to call to discuss the matter further.


I generally have a high boiling point, but I am guessing that at that moment I had what my children used to refer to as my “mad look,” especially when I called immediately and was told that the Dean was travelling.  In my nearly 40-year career there have been exactly three times when I was filled with righteous indignation (my best quality) and wrote a letter to reflect that.  This ranks at the top of that list.


I wrote the Dean that we were in agreement that the student handled the situation poorly, but also expressed surprise that he had never called me or requested a final transcript once the student had contacted him about changing his original decision.  I shared what I knew about the situation and what I had advised the student, and concluded that my office had handled the situation in good faith, exactly as it should have.  I invited him to call me to discuss the situation further.  Ten years later, I’ve stopped waiting for the phone to ring.  


I thought back to that incident recently after an Admissions Dean friend contacted me asking for advice regarding an ethical situation.  The situation offered a different perspective on an issue I wrote about back in February, how to deal with a case where a student wants to renege on an Early Decision commitment.


In this particular case, a student had applied for a competitive merit scholarship at the Dean’s college.  The student didn’t advance beyond the first round of the scholarship competition, and at some point apparently told someone on the admissions staff of his intention to withdraw his application.


The withdrawal never got into the college’s admission system, so when regular decisions went out at the end of March, the student was admitted.  The student was surprised to receive the acceptance, given that he thought he had withdrawn, but his interest was renewed with the offer of admission.  The complication was that the student had in January applied and been accepted to another college through its Early Decision 2 option.  As a further complication the student and his parents were at odds about which school he should attend.


The Dean called me for an ethics consult.  What was the institution’s ethical obligation in this case?


In any ethical situation each moral agent may have a different set of obligations.  For the student, entering in to the moral contract associated with Early Decision trumps any other interest (please note or sense my unease at having to use the verb “trumps”), especially if an Early Decision Agreement has been signed.  If I were the student’s counselor, I would feel dishonest sending a final transcript to a school other than the one committed to through Early Decision, and if a student now wanted to change his or her mind I would be strongly advising that should be done only after notifying the ED school.  We don’t do students any favor when we allow them to treat a commitment like Early Decision as anything other than serious.


But what is the non-Early Decision college’s ethical obligation?  Is it obligated to police and enforce the Early Decision agreement with the other college?  My conclusion is no.  It made its offer of admission in good faith, not aware that the student thought he had withdrawn or that he had subsequently applied ED-2 to another institution.  I told the Dean that the college had acted appropriately and had no further obligation, but that in a perfect world the student should ask to be released from the Early Decision commitment to the other college.  That is apparently what has happened.


What ties the two cases together is the concept of acting in “good faith” (from the Latin bona fides).  Acting in good faith is a key concept in contract law, but also a key concept in ethical interaction with others.  Good faith implies sincerity, honesty, and good intentions, with motivations free of pretense.


Like many other things, good faith is in the eye of the beholder.  Good faith does not resolve ethical dilemmas by itself, but asking “Am I acting in good faith?” is always a good starting point in trying to figure out what is the ethical thing to do.



P.S.  Ethical College Admissions is about to shut down for the summer.  I am anticipating one more post to comment on the Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. Texas.


The most recent post, on discipline-blind admission, was selected by Inside Higher Ed as an “Around the Web” selection.  As always, that recognition is greatly appreciated.