(This is the second in an occasional series on the new Statement of Principles of Good Practice and related ethical issues.)
Today is the first of May. The significance of the day depends on your background and perspective.
If you’re fond of Germanic paganism or attended a girls’ school, you may associate May 1 with dancing around the Maypole to celebrate the coming of summer. If you grew up in a Soviet bloc country, it’s a day for parades featuring lots of military hardware. If you’re a loyal supporter of President Trump, you will celebrate “Loyalty Day” today.
On this day in 1930 a ninth planet was identified in our solar system and named for Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto (it was later “de-planeted” before returning to planet status last month). The Empire State Building was commissioned in 1931, and three mismatched cultural icons were born on this day—Calamity Jane, North Korea, and SpongeBob SquarePants. Hopefully none of them will choose to celebrate their birthday by shooting something off.
For those of us in the college admissions profession, May 1 is arguably the most important day of the year. It is the National Candidates’ Reply Date, the date by which high school seniors should have made one, and only one, enrollment deposit. In theory May 1 brings the admissions cycle to a close, although we know that many rolling admission places continue enrolling into the summer and that the use of Wait Lists has become a distinct part of the admission cycle.
For admissions offices May 1 can be a time for celebration, a time for relief, or a time for panic. If deposits are slow, May Day can turn into “May Day! May Day!,” the international distress call.
May 1 can also produce anxiety for students. Up to now the college search and admission processes have been about options and possibilities. Now choosing one door means closing others. The finality of May 1 is hard for some students.
In 2005 May 1 fell on a Saturday. I was in the dugout coaching a baseball game when my cell phone rang. It was one of my seniors, one of my son’s best friends. He was having trouble making a final decision among three good options, and as I recall his mother wanted him to deposit at the school he liked least. We talked through the options while I kept the scorebook and finally he decided where he was going to mail his deposit.
An hour later the phone rang again. “I just mailed all three envelopes!” he exclaimed with panic. “What should I do?” I told him to calm down and on Monday he called the two schools that he wasn’t attending. “I bet I’m going to become one of your stories,” he prophesized. And so he has.
May 1 serves as the cornerstone for the ethical infrastructure underlying college admissions. The current (but not the new) Statement of Principles of Good Practice has a list of what are called “Member Conventions,” defined as “a set of understandings or agreements to frame our code of ethics.” May 1 does not appear on that list (but does appear elsewhere in the document), but May 1 is the ultimate admissions “convention.” There is nothing sacred about May 1, but we have agreed on this date as a “finish line” to ensure that both students and institutions have a level playing field.
May 1 supports the ethical principle that students should be able to make a college choice that is informed and made without undue coercion or manipulation. A student should be able to receive decisions from all the colleges to which he or she applied and have time to compare the pros and cons of each option before choosing the best fit.
May 1 also helps college admission remain a profession rather than a cutthroat business. It provides a framework that keeps us from falling prey to our baser motives to serve ourselves and not our students, and it keeps the college process from deteriorating into a “Wild West” where there are no rules. As a result it helps preserve public trust in our profession.
That is not to say that May 1 is not under constant threat of erosion. As a marketing and business mentality comes into conflict with college admission’s traditional emphasis on education and counseling, and as more institutions struggle for survival, there are more challenges to May 1 every year. Attempts to circumvent May 1 constitute the vast majority of complaints made to Admission Practices committees both at the national and affiliate levels.
Those challenges to May 1 take the following forms:
--Requests to deposit by an earlier date without making it clear that the student has until May 1;
--Incentives to enroll earlier, ranging from a discounted enrollment deposit, early registration for classes, a scholarship reserved for students who deposit by a particular earlier date, and even backstage passes to a concert;
--Insinuations that enrollment, housing, or placement in a certain program might disappear “unless you order now.”
I asked Lou Hirsh, Chair of the National Admission Practices Committee for NACAC, to comment on the importance of May 1. As usual, he is far more eloquent than I am.
“The May 1 National Candidates Reply Date protects both students and colleges:
· It frees students from the chaos – and unfairness – of being forced to commit to a college before they have heard from other colleges or weighed other financial aid and scholarship offers.
· It ensures that colleges compete fairly with each other. It lets them plan their mailings, phone calling, off-campus receptions, and on-campus yield events knowing that they are reaching students before they have been forced to make a commitment elsewhere. Without it, colleges would be embroiled in a self-defeating “early deposit deadline arms race.”
But what also makes May 1 so central is that it is so pedagogically important. For the first time in their lives, these (mostly) 17-year-olds are being asked to make an informed and life-changing choice. As their teachers (and whether we work on the counseling side of the desk or the college admission side, we are, indeed, “teachers”), we want them to enter their adulthood weighing pros and cons, reining in their impulsiveness, and taking the time to think about the human beings they have become and the ones they hope to be. Like so much else in education, the process is as important as the outcome.
Colleges that bully students into forgoing their May 1 rights by making them commit early in order to secure a scholarship offer or by implying some other disadvantage betray a fundamental ethical and pedagogical imperative. Other colleges play by the rules and in the process serve the best interests of students. Why can’t they?”
The draft of the new Statement of Principles of Good Practice includes a section outlining dates, deadlines, and procedures for the college admission cycle, and May 1 is the central component of that calendar. The new document requires colleges to abide by May 1 for enrollment to not just institutions, but to special programs, majors, and institutional scholarships, even those that are administered by departments. It also requires institutions to be explicit about whether deposits received before May 1 are refundable.
Regardless of how you celebrate May 1, take time today to appreciate the role this day plays in preserving the integrity of the college admissions process.