Several weeks ago I received a phone call from an admissions dean friend with an ethics question.  If this were a movie trailer rather than a blog devoted to the ethics of college admissions, I might describe the question as “ripped from today’s headlines.”


The dean works for one of the myriad of small liberal-arts colleges that are tuition driven, whose very existence is dependent on its admissions office achieving enrollment targets.  Enrolling the freshman class is never going to be easy, but the dean is a pro, an institutional icon, with a staff that does a remarkable job representing the college year-in and year-out, and as a result the college is holding its own as much as any small liberal-arts college these days.


The consequence of that success is that the college, for budgetary reasons, has set an ambitious freshman class goal, above anything the college has previously achieved.  As you might expect, the admissions staff has been under great pressure to bring in the freshman class, and the dean wants to support the staff and reward them for meeting goals.


The dean’s question was what kinds of rewards are appropriate and which are in conflict with the ban on incentive compensation in the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  Can a college give a staff member a bonus for reaching an enrollment goal?  The word on the street was that competitor colleges are doing exactly that.  If such a bonus is impermissible, what about adding an amount to the following year’s salary, or paying off student loans?


The relevant section in the SPGP is I. A. 3. a., which states that:


            “Members will be compensated in the form of a fixed salary, rather than commissions or bonuses based on the number of students recruited.”


The idea that admissions professionals should be compensated by salary rather than on a commission basis is as old as the Statement of Principles of Good Practice itself, and is in fact the very first statement in the earliest version of the SPGP I’ve seen.  It reflects the principle that college admissions and college counseling are a profession rather than a business, that we are educators and not salesmen.


The prohibition on per capita compensation extends beyond the SPGP.  It is also part of U.S. Federal law.  A 1992 amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 prohibited colleges and universities eligible for federal financial-aid funds from paying commissions, bonuses, or other incentives for recruiters based on the number of students they recruit.  In 2010 the Department of Education issued regulations for improving the integrity of federal student aid programs, regulations intended to respond to abuses in the for-profit college sector. Those regulations included the following statement on incentive compensation:


            “Institutions will not provide any commission, bonus, or other incentive payment based in any part, directly or indirectly, upon success in securing enrollments or the award of financial aid.”


Of course the incentive compensation issue was a major part of the discussion about the use of agents to help colleges recruit international students in certain parts of the world.  Per capita compensation is a common, and economical, way for American colleges to contract with agents, and NACAC’s decision to allow colleges to pay agents per head to recruit internationally, albeit with conditions intended to ensure “accountability, transparency, and integrity,” remains controversial.  I have talked before about the ethical tension between ideals and pragmatism, and allowing agents to be paid per head was a compromise recognizing the complex nature of international recruitment and the lack of an infrastructure for college counseling in many parts of the world.


Let’s return to the dean’s dilemma (“Dean’s Dilemma” would be a perfect title for a drab novel set in academia).  Which kinds of staff rewards are legitimate, and which are questionable?


My response to the dean was that it is perfectly legitimate to give a bonus to a staff member, as long as the bonus is not tied to meeting a particular enrollment goal or area target, but I also wanted to consult with two friends who are also supporters of this blog.  They also happen to be the current Chair of the NACAC Admission Practices Committee and his immediate predecessor, Lou Hirsh and Todd Rinehart.  In addition to the SPGP expertise, both have experience running an admissions office, Lou at the University of Delaware before his retirement and Todd currently at the University of Denver.


Both gave similar answers.  Part of being a good manager is motivating staff members to achieve goals and then validating and rewarding them when the office finds success.  Both commented that both salary adjustments and bonuses are legitimate forms of reward, although Lou added as an option “the catered gourmet meal with expensive wine pairings for the entire staff.”  That’s even better than the box of Cheez-It’s I would have gladly accepted in my admissions days (or daze).


Lou and Todd cited two tests for determining whether a staff reward is within the spirit of the SPGP.  The first is whether the basis for the reward is holistic, not tied to the number of students an individual staff member recruits.  Todd commented,


A staff member may have a goal to increase applications and/or deposits in a certain territory, but focus can also be paid to how many schools they visit, fairs covered, communications to students, applications reviewed, and other duties like campus visit programs/marketing materials/social media campaigns/tour guide programs/etc., (and if they completed these tasks within stated deadlines, and within our program budgets). Most counselors have responsibilities outside of territory management, and chances are if apps and deposits are increasing, so is their work in these other areas, which can be rewarded for having a successful year.


Todd documents and recognizes all of the areas of responsibility as part of the annual performance review.


The second test is whether a reward is tied to the success of an individual or the success of the team.  Lou commented,


That’s an important distinction. Staff members can contribute to their meeting their targets in all sorts of ways:

· The folks in processing responded more speedily to inquiries and other requests.

· Campus visit programs were better organized, and the tour guides were better trained.

· The counselors visited more high schools, attended more college fairs, and did a better job of following up with the students they met.

· The office valued teamwork. If a colleague was overwhelmed with an important office project, someone always volunteered to help out to ensure that the project was successful.

· Most important of all: none of the counselors was under pressure to recruit (and admit) each and every student they encountered. If the college wasn’t a good fit for a student, they could say so. The goal was never to recruit students at all costs. Rather, it was to help the office do a better job at presenting its case to prospective students and at counseling them through the admission and enrollment process.

One sure sign that a dean is violating the SPGP is if the bonus is available only to the staff who come indirect contact with students and parents and not to the support staff.


College admission is an on-going battle between its aspiration as a profession and the reality that higher education is an industry.  Each of us fights that battle in daily skirmishes, and the choices we make matter.  I’m glad my admission dean friend is sensitive to the care, validation, and well-being of staff members, and even more glad with the commitment to do it the right way.