College Admissions

Fear and Uncertainty Can Lead to Bad Behavior on All Sides

At the same time that many families are in a state of high anxiety over the competition to get into college, admissions staffs at the majority of colleges are worried about enrolling enough freshmen.

According to the recently released 2013 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Directors,  more than half of private, bachelor’s degree granting colleges and public, bachelor’s or master’s degree granting institutions had not met their fall enrollment goals by the May 1 deadline for students to accept an offer of admission. Schools offering doctoral degrees were more likely to reach their enrollment goals.

Some schools, including St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the public honors college in the state, and Loyola University New Orleans, were significantly short of their enrollment targets this year, and will have to make budget cuts because of the loss in tuition revenue. Colleges that don’t have large endowments and are very dependent on tuition are especially vulnerable to fluctuations in enrollment. Nobody wants to lose faculty and staff, and every college will be working hard to meet enrollment targets this year.

Admissions offices at many colleges are likely to be dealing with enrollment pressures for a while. In many parts of the country, the number of high school seniors has peaked, and for the next few years, there may be fewer students applying to college.

Families are no longer so willing to take on big loans for expensive colleges, and this has impacted private colleges as well as nonresident enrollment at some public universities. Some schools are trying to reassure families worried about the costs going up every year by guaranteeing that tuition will remain the same for four years. However, residence hall and meal plan costs can still increase each year.

International recruiting has become more important as colleges seek to broaden the applicant pool. In 2011, the majority of admissions directors backed a National Association for College Admissions Counseling draft policy that would prohibit colleges from using recruiting agents who are paid at least in part by commission. Just two years later, at last week’s NACAC convention, members approved a new policy that will allow the use of these agents, who enable colleges to bring in more applications from international students. Many admissions offices already send their representatives around the world and fly in high school counselors for campus visits. I attended a campus visit program at one highly selective university, where counselors were flown in from Greece, China and even Nepal. This, despite the fact that the university already has an admit rate below 15 percent.

Fear and desperation can bring out the worst in people. When students feel the pressure of competition for college admission, they sometimes resort to exaggerating or fabricating their achievements. Some students even have someone else write their application essays.

Admission offices are not immune to the temptation to cheat. There have been several cases in recent years of colleges reporting higher average SAT scores to the US News rankings, and in the survey, while very few admissions directors say their school reports false data to US News and other rankings systems, the vast majority believe that other schools engage in this practice.

In recent years, as fear of competition and the desire to compare costs motivates students to apply to more colleges, it has been increasingly difficult for colleges to predict how many students will accept an offer of admission. According to the survey, 29 percent of admissions directors admitted to recruiting students who had already committed to other schools. Doing this after the May 1 decision deadline is a violation of NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice, and the fact that it was not uncommon this year is a sign of how desperate some schools were to meet their enrollment targets.

While some colleges may be engaging in unethical behavior, that doesn’t mean students get a pass to violate the rules. If knowing that you have conducted yourself honorably is not enough motivation to complete your applications in an ethical manner, be aware that dishonesty could jeopardize your admission. Some colleges may ask for proof of your community service hours or extracurricular activities, especially if the hours you claim on the application seem excessive. Admissions officers will be suspicious if the “voice” or the quality of writing in an application essay is not consistent with the essay you wrote as part of the SAT or ACT, or does not seem to match your academic performance in English classes. Parents who are tempted to provide too much help with essays should know that admissions officers are quite capable of recognizing essays that were written by 45-year-olds.

It can be challenging to stay on an ethical path, especially when other people, and institutions, may stray from that path. But applications that are authentic stand out, and there’s nothing better than getting an acceptance from a college and knowing you earned it.