Oct 14, 2015

NACAC members barred from asking for college lists next year

Rice University asks applicants where else they've applied.

Effective next year, colleges will no longer be able to ask prospective students where else they are applying on admissions applications, thanks to new ethical guidelines approved by the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) General Assembly.

During its annual conference in San Diego, NACAC revised its Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP) to forbid member colleges from including the question in written communications with students.

The new policy says college must “not ask candidates, their schools, their counselors, or others to list or rank their college or university preferences on applications or other documents.”

This change in language follows a similar policy change on the part of the Department of Education to discontinue the practice of sharing college lists provided on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), planned for implementation on January 1, 2016.

And the issue is not a trivial one. Asking applicants to reveal and/or rank their college preferences causes what most counselors believe is unnecessary anxiety.  It begs the question of what it is the colleges are looking for—a demonstration of interest or an opportunity to jump-start recruitment activities.  Colleges contend that knowing the applicant’s other preferences help them in their counseling roles, but students and their advisers find it difficult to believe such a benign motivation, especially in the era of “big data” and other intrusions on applicant privacy throughout the admissions process.

And it’s a particularly good case study for colleges wishing to establish policies promoting “public interest” as opposed to narrower institutional interests—a question also considered during the NACAC conference.

The issue became a hot topic last spring as the Common Application and NACAC engaged in a squabble over who was in charge of the question.  Paul Mott, interim CEO of the Common App, declined to take responsibility and threw the ball back into NACAC’s court to act upon.

As a result, over 125 Common App members as well as colleges using the Universal College Application (UCA) and others felt free to continue the practice for this year. Included on this list are Davidson College, DePaul University, Drexel University, Goucher College, Hampshire College, Hofstra University, RPI, Rice University, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the University of Cincinnati, and WPI.

But Todd Rinehart, associate chancellor for enrollment and director of admission at the University of Denver and chair of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee, wanted to press the issue further and proposed language to amend the SPGP, effective for the 2016-17 application cycle. Not everyone was pleased by this outcome, and much institutional angst was expressed privately.  But the fact that the amendment passed was a clear indication of how powerful the counselor lobby has become within NACAC—a welcome outcome for many.

And so it remains to be seen how the new policy will be enforced.  Will there be a NACAC-initiated campaign warning colleges of possible consequences for violations? And will NACAC take the time to audit or review member applications?  Or will NACAC passively wait for complaints?  As a loyal partner with NACAC, will the Common Application remove the question from among those allowable? Or will the Common App and other application providers insist that NACAC take responsibility for enforcement?

Also, there is the question of how the change in SPGP language affects other interactions. It’s no secret that interviewers—alumni and staff—occasionally ask applicants where else they are applying. Although the language seems to imply that these questions would be off limits, there is no specific prohibition against asking or including the response as part of the applicant’s file.

It’s a little early to know how aggressively the new language will be enforced next year. If the past is any indicator, however, NACAC has not always been too hard on institutional violations of the SPGP.   And this one could be hugely difficult to enforce without support from the Common Application and other application providers.

In the meantime, this year’s applicants continue to be faced with the strategic question of what to tell colleges that insist on knowing where else they are applying.  But happily it’s an unnecessary stressor that will soon be eliminated.

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