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NACAC Ethics Code Changes Due to Anti-trust Investigation by the DOJ

The National Association for College Admission Counselors is “an organization of more than 15,000 professionals from around the world dedicated to serving students as they make choices about pursuing postsecondary education.” They were founded in 1937 to provide professional standards and ethics to member professionals. At their Fall 2019 conference, they voted to remove several of the provisions from their Code of Ethics and Professional Practices (CEPP) as a result of a US Department of Justice investigation into possible anti-trust violations which began in 2018.

What ethics provisions have been removed?

From Inside Higher Ed, NACAC Agrees to Change Its Code of Ethics:

Incentives for Early Decision applicants

“Colleges must not offer incentives exclusive to students applying or admitted under an early decision application plan. Examples of incentives include the promise of special housing, enhanced financial aid packages, and special scholarships for early decision admits. Colleges may, however, disclose how admission rates for early decision differ from those for other admission plans.”

Giving students time and space

“College choices should be informed, well-considered, and free from coercion. Students require a reasonable amount of time to identify their college choices; complete applications for admission, financial aid, and scholarships; and decide which offer of admission to accept. Once students have committed themselves to a college, other colleges must respect that choice and cease recruiting them.”

May 1st is no longer an end date

“Colleges will not knowingly recruit or offer enrollment incentives to students who are already enrolled, registered, have declared their intent, or submitted contractual deposits to other institutions. May 1 is the point at which commitments to enroll become final, and colleges must respect that. The recognized exceptions are when students are admitted from a wait list, students initiate inquiries themselves, or cooperation is sought by institutions that provide transfer programs.”

Colleges seeking out last year’s applicants

“Colleges must not solicit transfer applications from a previous year’s applicant or prospect pool unless the students have themselves initiated a transfer inquiry or the college has verified prior to contacting the students that they are either enrolled at a college that allows transfer recruitment from other colleges or are not currently enrolled in a college.”

Why were these provisions created?

The purpose of the code was to strike a good balance between the interests of the colleges and the students. They were meant to provide the process with “transparency and consistency.” From The Chronicle of Higher Education, W. Kent Barnes of  Augustana College, in Illinois said: “The guidelines aren’t just about protecting students — they’re also about how we are treating each other as competitors, the promises we make about how we behave toward each other.

Colleges would be able to tempt students with promises of special housing if they apply Early Decision, without understanding that an Early Decision offer is binding–no matter what the cost turns out to be. Moving a college application deadline up to September 15 could benefit wealthier students who can afford private college counselors they have hired for their expertise. Allowing colleges to make offers after May 1st to students who have already accepted a school leads to even more confusion. Colleges can continue to pressure students even after a student says “I’m not interested anymore.” Colleges could “force” students to accept an offer right away by luring them with better housing options. It could get crazy!

Those students who need guidance and support are most at risk with the “sales-y, promotion-y” efforts of the marketing juggernaut that is big college. The code provided guidance for colleges to protect vulnerable students from a hard sell, feeding frenzy.

Why did the US Justice Department get involved?

We haven’t found a reason that the Justice Department started this action. They did not respond to a request when the investigation began. The Justice Department believes that the provisions inhibit competition among colleges for students. It seems they felt the ethics code restrains “trade among colleges and universities in the recruitment of students.” So, rather than fight that fight, the NACAC simply removed the provisions.

NACAC professionals wonder why the Justice Department, when they have so much else to do, would focus on the ethics of a voluntary, professional group trying to protect the under served.

Now what?

We’ll have to wait and see. All in all, this creates an environment where it is up to the consumer to make an informed college buying decision. These are interesting times for higher education and this marks a historic time when even the US Justice Department is stepping in to try and level the playing field. Colleges are struggling as the number of students shrinks. Their full court marketing press could become even more invasive. Timelines and deadlines could get really short and not uniform. Pressure to apply and decide could be very different in the future. The biggest fear of the well intentioned is that there is no one left to protect those students and families who don’t understand the process. Those with resources to great counselors at their high school or the ability to hire an independent counselor will be at an even bigger advantage as this change may very well create an even more complicated process. Most colleges will hopefully continue to maintain professional standards, but we worry that unscrupulous colleges desperate to increase enrollment will take advantage.