Aug 17, 2015

Despite pushback from NACAC, colleges still ask for applicant lists

RPI, in Troy, New York, asks for "the list."

Last week’s announcement from the U.S. Department of Education eliminating the possibility that colleges could review and analyze college lists provided by applicants on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) represented a huge victory against “big data.”  

But sadly the battle against intrusions into what should be a college applicant’s private information continues.  Students completing surveys as part of registrations for the SAT, ACT or innocent-looking websites unwittingly give organizations a treasure trove of data they can turn around and sell to colleges and universities.  Fed into enrollment management software, this information can be used to predict metrics important to the college admission process, not the least of which involves “yield” or the likelihood that a student would accept an offer of admission from specific institutions.

In the case of the ACT, the data can evidently be transformed into predictions about chances of success at specific colleges or in specific majors.  For those completing one or more of the College Board’s net price calculators (found on individual college websites), the information can be used to predict ability to pay or can be tied with standardized test scores to provide a robust profile of a student’s finances and academics.

As if this isn’t bad enough, a large number of colleges have no problem being upfront about asking where else a student is applying.  Over 125 Common Application member colleges and universities, including some belonging to the Universal College Application group, have made provisions within their applications to ask just this.  This is more than double the number of colleges that asked the question in 2014-15 on the Common Application.

And why would this be?   Perhaps it’s because the question became such a huge issue last spring as the Common Application and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) engaged in a squabble over the appropriateness of asking applicants to provide such personal information on applications to college. 

Specifically, Paul Mott, interim CEO of the Common Application, reinforced what had been a long-time policy of the organization allowing members to ask applicants to provide a list of other institutions to which they are applying in spite of wording in the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP) appearing to discourage such questions from being asked by NACAC members.

“The philosophy has always been that the college application process is stressful and complex enough, and we don’t need to add yet another layer to the tangled web by posing a question that puts the student in an awkward position,” said Todd Rinehart, associate chancellor for enrollment and director of admission at the University of Denver and chair of NACAC’s Admission Practices Committee.

Mott ultimately went on to justify the Common App’s position allowing the question:  “To me, this is an inappropriate question to put to college applicants, but I am here to serve my Members, and any personal opinion I may have is not especially relevant.”

The issue went on to dominate discussions at the Common App’s spring conference, and eventually, a substantial number of members elected to ignore NACAC recommendations and include the question on their applications.

Among Common App members including the question for 2015-16 are:

These schools plant their list requests among Common App member questions labeled “General,” while Davidson College, Salve Regina University, and the University of the Pacific place them within the “Other Information” category. 
Rice University and Whittier College tuck theirs into a writing supplement.
Seattle Pacific University is a little more directive in its questioning.  After asking if a student plans to apply to other universities (yes or no), a dropdown menu appears with an assortment of carefully chosen candidates.
And Macalester College is careful to tell students their response is “for research purposes only and will not affect the decision on your application for admission.”
Several colleges that asked the question last year, such as the University of San Diego and the University of Redlands, reworded their requests to avoid a list and ask how their institutions “stand out” among or “compare to” other colleges being applied to.
All this has not gone unnoticed by NACAC’s Admissions Practices Committee, which is moving forward with a proposal for this fall’s Assembly in San Diego, requiring that postsecondary members “not ask candidates or their secondary schools to list or rank order their college or university preferences on applications or other documents.”
According to Rinehart, schools will be allowed to ask students where they applied for the current year, since most have already launched their applications.  If the proposal passes, however, it will go into effect for the fall 2017 cycle and will forbid schools from asking the question in any manner.
FAFSA has set an important precedent.  It remains to be seen, however, if the NACAC membership will follow suit.  And beyond NACAC, it will be up to the industry as a whole to help students avoid falling into the various "big data" traps set for them by organizations purporting to support the admissions process by repackaging and selling their private information.

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