They say that eyewitness accounts are inherently unreliable.  Of course we don’t know who “they” are, so that assertion may itself be unreliable.


Einstein’s Theory of Relativity apparently has nothing to do with bagels but states (if I understand it at all) that the presence of an observer actually changes the nature of the reality itself.  I recall a digression in one of George Plimpton’s books about sports where he writes about a guy whose job consisted of wearing a Mr. Peanut costume and walking around Times Square.  Because that doesn’t come close to being strange compared with much of what takes place around Times Square, he had the opportunity to people watch in a way that only a Mr. Peanut costume allows.  Couples argued and broke up in his presence unaware that he could hear everything they were saying, and he witnessed muggings and other crimes, imagining that witnesses asked by police if they saw anything suspicious might respond, “Well, there was this giant peanut.”


I have spent enough hours watching Law and Order reruns to know that four witnesses to the same event may have four very different accounts of what took place.  That can make it challenging to piece together a picture or narrative of an event after the fact.


I recently sat in on a disciplinary hearing involving unauthorized use of a cell phone in class.  There were minor discrepancies about timeline and about whether the class was reading or watching a video, but one witness testified that a sandwich was being eaten, introducing evidence at odds with all other testimony.  I wonder how Einstein would explain that sandwich.


Eyewitnesses to a crime or accident often experience a sense of disbelief or unreality, questioning whether what they just saw or experienced actually happened.  I experienced that myself just before Christmas when I thought I might have witnessed first-hand a violation of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.


I was at a lunch for counselors sponsored by a college that my students regularly attend.  It’s a good place with a success story to share, but it also tries too hard.  I appreciate institutions that are self-aware and comfortable enough with their identity that they share both their strengths and their challenges in presentations to counselors, because no place is perfect.  This school chooses to present a picture that is free of any blemishes whatsoever, such that the lunch is more infomercial than discussion, and I always feel that every two minutes they ask, “Have we mentioned how good we are?”  I want to tell them that 1) Yes, they have; 2) I’m already convinced; and 3) Schools that know they’re good don’t feel the need to convince others constantly.


Early in the presentation I thought I heard the Dean of Admissions say that merit scholarships would be awarded only to Early Decision and Early Action applicants, and that any counselor with a regular-decision applicant interested in a merit scholarship could contact the Dean and have the student’s application moved to Early Action.  I wasn’t the only one.  The other counselors at my table exchanged glances.  Had he actually said that?  Wasn’t that a violation of the SPGP?


It turns out it isn’t, at least technically.  I considered filing a complaint with the Admissions Practices Committee at both NACAC and my regional affiliate (Potomac and Chesapeake), but first consulted with two friends with AP committee experience.


They pointed out that the relevant section of the SPGP, II.B.4 under Mandatory Practices, states that postsecondary members will “not offer exclusive incentives that provide opportunities for students applying or admitted Early Decision that are not available to students admitted under other admission options.” The SPGP deals only with incentives for Early Decision candidates. Because Early Action applicants are also eligible for merit aid, the Dean’s statement does not violate the letter of the SPGP.


But does it violate the spirit of the SPGP, which is that colleges and universities should not discriminate against applicants based on how and when they apply (as long as they apply by an application deadline) and that there shouldn’t be incentives to coerce students to apply or enroll?


That raises some larger questions.  Aren’t most marketing practices attempting to convince students to apply or enroll?  Where is the line between marketing and coercion?  Are the assumptions many of us in the profession hold about college selection being about free choice outdated in today’s competitive higher education environment?


My judgment and suspicion may be clouded by the fact that a couple of years back the President of the same institution announced at the same gathering that the only students admitted would be those who applied either Early Decision or Early Action.  Both deadlines had already passed, causing the Admissions Office to backtrack and scramble.  It also raised a larger question.  Why have regular decision if you don’t intend to use it?  Why not rebrand Early Action as regular decision?   


Both of my Admission Practices contacts suggested that the institution could have avoided even the appearance of wrongdoing by establishing a scholarship priority deadline, even if that deadline happens to be the same as the Early Action deadline.  That gives students interested in merit scholarship consideration a clear deadline and does not tie scholarship consideration to applying early.


I ultimately decided to contact the Dean directly rather than go through the AP complaint process, and he replied quickly and thoughtfully.  The institution has instituted a new priority deadline for scholarships this year, which was not clear on the college website.  That was partially in response to scholarship funds becoming depleted the last couple of years by a stronger early pool.  Whether he misspoke, or we misheard, the reality is that students who apply regular decision are at a disadvantage for merit scholarship funds.  The priority deadline should help families (and counselors) understand that reality.


Three conclusions from this experience:


1)    Being an eyewitness is not all it’s cracked up to be.

2)    I suspect we’ll see more admission practices that are not necessarily wrong, but not necessarily right.

3)    I may start wearing a Mr. Peanut costume to all campus visits and counselor breakfasts/lunches.