Colleges just got a lot more leeway to recruit students

The National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) Assembly voted to remove three provisions from its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices.

The vote during the association’s annual meeting last week was an effort by NACAC to get ahead of a two-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division, which found several of the code’s measures limited competition and could lower costs for students if removed. They include banning incentives for early decision applicants and recruiting students who have committed to a college.

Admissions experts say the changes will heighten competition for students, particularly among colleges struggling to fill their classes, and could make it harder to determine yields.

The changes aim “to advance a good-faith compromise with the department and to mitigate the potential impact of other actions the department might take,” NACAC wrote on its website. And they have the effect of turning college recruiting into a year-round event.

Perhaps the most significant change is removing language from the code stating that “once students have committed themselves to a college, other colleges must respect that choice and cease recruiting them,” and that “May 1 is the point at which commitments to enroll become final, and colleges must respect that.”

It also struck language banning colleges from offering exclusive incentives to early decision applicants, such as special scholarships or more financial aid. And it scratched a requirement that colleges forgo soliciting previous applicants who enrolled at another institution in order to get them to transfer.

While the period after May 1 has traditionally been a slow one for many colleges, recent reports suggest that a growing number of institutions aren’t able to fill their classes by then. Continued concerns about attrition of admitted students throughout the summer also could be amplified.

John Barnhill, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Florida State University, expects schools that are struggling to fill their classes will actively recruit into the summer and beyond.

“That kind of continual recruitment, if you will, has never really happened and I could see some schools adopting a policy like that,” he said in an interview with Education Dive. “If they could pick up another 10 or 15 students and transfer, whether it’s mid-year or after a year or two, that’s something that may be worth doing if their costs are just simple emails (for) staying in touch.”

Efforts to counter the changes’ effects may include colleges raising students’ deposit fees and adding incentives for early decision applicants, wrote Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University, in a blog post ahead of the vote. The changes may also spur the need for better tracking of whether students have submitted deposits. And they could, indeed, have the effect of lowering college costs, he noted.

They could also help improve equity in admissions. “Often the most vulnerable students are later to the admissions process,” said Annie Reznik, executive director of the Coalition for College, which focuses on college access. She added that the changes could be a positive for those students, “ending the notion that things are really over at May 1, and you needn’t bother trying still.”

However, the lack of a stated policy could end up favoring students who are more aware of how the admissions process works, she said. 

Barnhill agrees with the Justice Department’s assessment that current policies limit competition. But he is concerned that the changes will make picking a college — and staying there — more difficult for students.

“There’s some good and bad there” for students, he said. “They will certainly receive a lot more correspondence and a lot more recruitment efforts, and hopefully that won’t be too confusing or off-putting to them.”

Reznik hopes colleges will take a beat before changing their recruitment strategies. “Especially in light of what’s happened in the last six months, really carefully understanding why certain practices, procedures, timelines were in place in the first place, and whether or not those continue to make sense” is important, she said.

NACAC still expects the Justice Department to take steps to enforce a complaint and consent decree, The Wall Street Journal reported. The probe is in line with other recent moves by the federal government to involve itself in the operations of colleges and universities. And it comes as NACAC finds itself making structural changes to address its own financial woes, according to Inside Higher Ed

A NACAC representative was not available to speak with Education Dive on Monday.